Social Justice The PZ Way

As far as I’m concerned Social Justice is a good cause, and one aspect of it that’s still needed is Feminism. There are injustices against women in many areas of interaction with men, and often at work: about work and in personal interactions at work.

The disputes and claims of harassment can be pretty tough to untangle. The people involved may have ‘history’ (that vague term clearly covers many complex possibilities), and often there are few, if any, witnesses to incidents, but often plenty of opinion and gossip. Work is just like that. It’s a freaky combination of professional and social life where the barriers aren’t always clear.

So this is one situation that requires some level headed treatment, the suspension of judgement, and calm reflected analysis all round – especially since those directly involved are likely to be emotionally charged about the conflict.

Librarians Value Social Justice Too

This happened recently:

Team Harpy – Apologies and retractions

It’s an apology from two harpies (their term) for making false accusations about librarian Joe Murphy (no relation). They accused him of sexual harassment, with nothing to go on but hearsay. The original offending blog posts appeared back in 2014, and the above apology and out of court settlement was announced recently, in March 2015.

Both ‘nina de jesus’ and ‘Lisa Rabey’ start with something similar:

I apologize for the false and damaging statements that I have made about Joe Murphy. I ask you to please read the following statement for details from my perspective. …

Here’s Joe’s page on the background, and the outcome:


Joe signs off on this with:

Now, I don’t know any of the people involved in this stuff. I have some vague recollection of ‘librarians’ and ‘harassment’, but up until this latest announcement I wouldn’t have remembered where I saw it initially.

It did come back to me – but we’ll get to that later. For now, let’s have a look at how some librarians dealt with this.

One Librarian’s Response

Other people had something to say at the time, some fellow librarians, some not. Have a look at this link. I’m actually linking to the comment by Natalie Binder (as tweeted by Joe) who makes a few good points.

Natalie Binder’s comment, on the post ‘Update: Librarians Embroiled in Lawsuit Alleging Sexual Harassment’

  1. “I’ve seen a lot of people use their impressions, opinions or gut feelings in place of the facts.”
  2. “Joe Murphy, a colleague, was the victim of a public slander that was pretty shocking in its content as well as deeply damaging and painful for all involved.”
  3. “With so many of us living public lives, we are all vulnerable to rumor, innuendo and even malicious lies. “
  4. “..nobody wants to re-victimize (or libel) someone who was abused by calling her a liar.”
  5. “I think (hope?) that is why more in the library community did not speak up earlier [to re-victimize or libel the abused]. It’s why I didn’t say anything until more information came out. Now I feel like that was a mistake.”
  6. “Anyone can be a victim and everyone deserves due process. It should absolutely be safe to say you’ve been victimized, but the accused should also be protected from personal and professional repercussions until the facts are established. That’s true no matter how successful we are, what gender we are, what age we are or even what our reputations are.”

Now, it seems to me that in some quarters I’ve seen plenty of 1, sometimes expressed in terms of 5, or even just outright acceptance of the accuser’s story; and I’ve seen little consideration given to the other important points that Natalie makes. And I’ve seen categorical rejections of any concern with the last sentence in 6 when it comes to the accused.

Some more points well made by Natalie:

  1. “I think that efforts to blame Mr. Murphy for what happened, or condemn him for seeking legal relief, should stop. It is not a SLAPP when someone defends himself against actual libel.”
  2. “What you think or believe about Mr. Murphy’s behavior, personality or job, it doesn’t justify libel.”
  3. “Finally, we don’t get to make a person a scapegoat for a diffuse and difficult social problem like sexual harassment. This is especially if there is no evidence that he did anything wrong, but it’s true even if he (or she or they) did.”


Read the rest of that OP and comments to get a feel for the problems with sexual harassment that seem to be of genuine concern. I know nothing of their world of librarianship and I don’t know any of the characters. But one thing is pretty clear:

This false accusation will not have helped the genuinely harassed, but it may have helped the falsely accused. That isn’t a balanced result, if you think there’s far more harassment than there is false accusation.

Another Librarian

Whistleblowers and what still isn’t transparent, by Meredith Farkas.

  1. “I don’t take back or regret anything I said about my personal interaction with Joe [see below], but I was horrified by the way he was tarred and feathered — by people who had no first-hand knowledge of him or his alleged crimes — on social media.”
  2. “It’s been no secret among many women (and some men) who attend and speak at conferences like Internet Librarian and Computers in Libraries that Joe Murphy has a reputation for using these conferences as his own personal meat markets. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know. I’ve known these allegations since before 2010, which was when I had the privilege of attending a group dinner with him.”
  3. “He didn’t sexually harass anyone at the table that evening, but his behavior was entitled, cocky, and rude. He barely let anyone else get a word in edgewise because apparently what he had to say (in a group with some pretty freaking illustrious people) was more important than what anyone else had to say. The host of the dinner apologized to me afterwards and said he had no idea what this guy was like. And that was the problem.”
  4. “When Lisa Rabey and nina de jesus (AKA #teamharpy) wrote about behavior from Joe Murphy that many of us had been hearing about for years, I believe they though they were acting as whistleblowers, though whistleblowers who had only heard about the behavior second or third-hand, which I think is an important distinction.”
  5. “That said, that this information comes second or third-hand does concern me. I don’t know for a fact that Joe Murphy is a sexual predator. Do you? Here’s what I do know. Did he creep out women at conferences? Yes. Did he behave like an entitled jerk at least some of the time? Yes. Do many people resent the fact that a man with a few years of library experience who hasn’t worked at a library in years is getting asked to speak at international conferences when all he offers is style and not substance? Yes.”
  6. “While all of the rumors about him that have been swirling around for at least the past 4-5 years may be 100% true, I don’t know if they are. I don’t know if anyone has come out and said they were harassed by him beyond the general “nice shirt” comment that creeped out many women.”
  7. “As anyone who has read my blog for a while knows, I am terrified of groupthink. So I feel really torn when it comes to this case. Part of me wonders whether my dislike of Joe Murphy makes me more prone to believe these things. Another part of me feels that these allegations are very consistent with my experience of him and with the rumors over these many years. But I’m not going to decide whether the allegations are true without hearing it from someone who experienced it first-hand.”

So, basically there’s this guy that some people find cocky and rude; and maybe some people have been all too eager to prop up rumours, maybe enhance them through the reliable process of gossip – reliable in muddying waters not clarifying them. What these two women did was not whistleblowing. That was rumour mongering.

And, “I’m not going to decide whether the allegations are true without hearing it from someone who experienced it first-hand.” – Good call.

A couple of comments from Meredith’s post:

Chris – “I’ve been following this. I have read both Lisa’s tweets and Nina’s blog posts and neither has first-hand knowledge of Joe’s actions. Rather, they have heard about his actions from others and are “spreading the word.” I have also met Joe Murphy. I was not impressed and thought he was a rude jerk, but he did not harass me. At the risk of being unpopular, I don’t believe this is a clear cut “Lisa and Nina are victims and must be supported against the big mean Joe Murphy.” While it is true that our justice system is unfair at an aggregate level, this is an individual case and for all I know it could be an outlier.”

Anonymous Librarian – “I agree this is sad for everyone. There’s a lot of discussion about this topic so I don’t feel too bad hijacking here… So, “Nice shirt” is creepy now. I don’t know what is safe to say to a coworker anymore. I remember recently saying I liked a coworker’s new hairstyle, and now I’m paranoid I’ll get called into the HR office any day now. When this drama first came out, I immediately stopped personal conversation with my coworkers. It’s strictly professional, now. Not even a “Hey, cool bag!” Because sexual harassment is very serious and, as Meredith points out, there’s often little evidence and things devolve into a case of “he said-she said”. Most might dismiss this as extreme/paranoid, but who can afford to have their career ruined by a misunderstanding? I’d rather my coworkers think of me as impersonal, boring, and overly-serious than a creep.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but all that seems like decent people dealing with a very tricky problem, and actually speaking out about their reservations. They really do want to support victims of harassment, but aren’t prepared to join a lynch mob.

A Lynch Mob

This is an example of a lynch mob:

Librarians, too?


“I love librarians, they always seem to be the most sensible people, and here it comes, a familiar story.”

Any chance a leaf might be taken out of their many sensible books?

OK, so Myer’s is sort of just reporting the issue here. Or so it seems. But he’s not normally shy about actually calling people out directly himself. Is he being circumspect about his own view for the same reasons as the good sensible librarians above? Balanced justice? His reticence can’t be anything to do with the fact that he’s been called out several times by many people for explicit but unsupported accusations? Does he warn his pack of hounds to maybe wait for more information? Not quite:


“Battle on!”

A true Social Justice Warrior!

And battle on his pack do, in their usual style. Myers no longer needs to expose himself to criticism for libelling or smearing someone, he only has to set the bait. Nice move. I can’t see Joe Murphy suing Myers for this.

Pieter Droogendijk:

“What a reprehensible slimeball. If the ladies lose this, my faith in humanity will be officially gone.”

Guilty! Doesn’t matter if the ‘ladies’ lose this because they lied, made shit up, spread rumours and elaborated. Guilty.

Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

“I suspect if the two get enough funds for discovery to happen, the lawsuit will go the way of the great auk. It’s one thing to try intimidation, it’s another to battle the truth and show it is lies, with plenty of witnesses saying you are sexual predator. Good enough for lawsuits, where the preponderance of evidence, not beyond a shadow of doubt, supposedly wins…..”

Plenty of witnesses indeed. How do you know there are plenty of witnesses? A classic theologian’s move: God inspired the Bible. How do I know? Because the Bible told me so. Well, the two harpies told him so?

Tony! The Queer Shoop:

“And this: [lawsuit] is the sign of an asshole trying to silence women. Fuck you Joe Murphy.”

Ah, Tony. Where would PZ be without Tony to do the dirty work. As reliable as ever. So, Tony, nobody starts a lawsuit because they are innocent?

YOB – Ye Olde Blacksmith:

“Fuck you, Joe Mrphy. Money sent.”

And I hope you think well spent.


“The blogpost comments include a remark that he bragged on youtube, creating his own evidence.”

So, echidna (step 1) says the comments include a remark (step 2) that he bragged on youtube (step 3) – hearsay, three steps from the supposed source, not counting any other intermediaries hidden and not yet revealed by the source of the ‘remark’. OK, evidenced based commenting at its best.


“Well, you know what they say. The easiest defense against a libel/slander allegation is the truth. In a just world, all they should need to do is bring forward multiple women who have been harassed by this fucker and/or emails and other correspondence between women instituting the buddy system and other measures they’ve taken to protect themselves from this assclown, and he would be laughed out of court.
Then again, it’s hardly a just world for women. :(“

Yeah, fuck it if there possibly, maybe, might have been actual libel, let’s just focus on doing the right thing, for the accuser presumed victim!

Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought (love theromantic names the FtB commenters give themselves):

“Seconding Alex in #18. What the fuck? It’s absurd that Joe Murphy can do this.” – [about the injustice of being sued]

There are problems when rich people get better access to the law. But WTF, a librarian can’t defend himself if he thinks he’s wrongly accused?

Remember that with all this, it’s not about whether Joe Murphy was actually guilty of harassment, or that the two women made shit up based on rumour – though of course to him that was what it was about.

What I mean is: This is about other people that know fuck all about the case making the accused guilty on the internet.

But, luckily for Joe Murphy he doesn’t live in this world:

Officials: Woman Beaten to Death for Burning Quran Was Wrongly Accused

Yeah, lucky Joe.

Summing Up

Well, where’s this going? In the words of Lisa, one of the two retractors:

“Myself, and I assume everyone involved, want to move on. Please respect that wish.”

I’ve not seen an update from Myers and co, so I guess he must be respecting that wish. Yes, that must be why they’ve not wanted to admit they were wrong to presume the accusers were telling the truth and the accused is guilty. I mean, had Joe’s case gone ahead and failed (yes, simply failed to prove libel, not that Joe had actually harassed) then they would have been all over this like a rash.

The trouble is, outside this crappy behaviour most people think that PZ Myers is probably a good guy – No, Pitters, really, he is. He wants to do the right thing, and he often does. I still read his blog. It’s good enough often enough, when he isn’t a) being a shit of an ideologue with his brand of feminism, b) being a shit with anyone that doesn’t meet his ideal.

Yes, you can still be a good guy while being a bit of a shit from time to time, or when you’re a bit obsessive about unreasonable standards of perfection – ironic given how much grief he gives people for being a bit of a shit occasionally, or simply for persisting in calling out his smears.

That sort of hyperbole just has so many people looking at Myers right now and thinking, WTF?

This is the shit that shows that someone that has a desire for social justice has turned into an ideologue – a Social Justice Warrior!

Frank Jackson, James Garvey, Mary and the Awful Knowledge Argument

James Garvey of TPM has this piece on an interview with Frank Jackson, where Jackson seems to have turned to physicalism, but I still don’e think he gets it yet.

A point to make at the outset: Refuting the Knowledge Argument does not in itself make the case for physicalism. A physicalist point may be used in an explanation of the physicalist understanding of the phenomena the Knowledge Argument is trying to describe, but the refutation of the argument is a logical one, and the physicalist comment only supports that refutation, by offering the physicalist view as an alternative.

The Knowledge Argument

Garvey kindly reminds us of this ‘astonishing’ argument, with a summary of it:

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specialises in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes…. What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a colour television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?”

The “who is, for whatever reason” is a whopping big clue that the whole thing isn’t well thought out. This argument is using a thought experiment set in a magical world, and so one shouldn’t be surprised when magic comes out the end.

Some practicalities first. These aren’t pertinent to the basic argument but do show how easily philosophers can ditch aspects of reality to invent a magical world factory that manufactures magical worlds that have no bearing on the real world.

Does Mary have a normal evolved human brain and body? Does she have red blood in her vessels and blue blood in her veins? Does any pressure on her eyes not stimulate her brain so that she sees what we take to be red, such that when she comes out the room she recognises red.

Was Mary brought up in this room so that she never experienced colour at all? How did her education proceed? By machines? How well could her brain have developed to engage in the science necessary to show she knows all there is to know about the physical nature of colour as experienced by humans? How exactly do you justify anything in this thoughtless experiment that makes it at all realistic.

I know, much of this isn’t the point of the argument. We are supposed to take it on face value that such a Mary could exist. Well, why come up with any arbitrary un-real conditions at all? The purpose of the exact conditions that Jackson describes has a sole purpose of refuting physicalism, so the conditions are set up to do just that.

But, let’s play the game. The results of playing the game are the following possibilities:

If Mary really did know everything about colour then she knew enough to stimulate in her own physical brain the experience of colour, even though coloured light didn’t enter her eyes. I take it you, dear reader, hasn’t seen pink elephants, but enough imagination, or with psychedelic or alcoholic inducement your brain can conjure them up. Well, if Mary really does know everything then she knows how to experience red internally, and when she sees the red tomato it’s just as she imagined.

Alternatively Mary didn’t know everything, and here we come to what amounts to Jackson’s bad definition of knowledge. We’ll come back to the Mary argument when we see what Garvey and Jackson make of it following Jackson’s conversion.

We have this other troublesome philosophical cock-up to deal with now – knowledge and the rather pitiful philosophical attempts to define it – JTB and all that crap. We have a lot to learn about knowledge, but here’s a simple understanding of it.

Knowledge and Consciousness

I think the problem for Jackson starts with an inadequate view of what knowledge might be. This is my view. I won’t beat about the bush justifying every aspect of this, but here’s a quick attempt to define knowledge, in my terms, as a physicalist. Ask questions if you want more.

Human brains are physical biological systems that react to input signals. These ‘signals’ in a broader sense are more varied than just the sense inputs. There are the DNA signals that contribute to brain development, and the physical-chemical-biological environment in which that development occurs – as food is transformed into chemicals that are transported and processed by cells, for example, or as psychological pressures alter the young brain. The brain is already a dynamic developing system from the start. On top of that comes the stimulation through the nerves: the internal ones from the body, the way they react to the external physical world through our many senses. All this builds a brain.

The brain forms patterns of neuronal connections, and they are a combination of static and dynamic conditions – connections come and go, but some connections are sustained by repeated triggering and maintained by dynamic processes at the junctions. The physics of atoms, ions, electrons, is churning at every point, chemistry is ongoing, the biological processes live on, even in what appear like static neurons that exist over time, and synaptic connections that remain in place for a long time. The static appearance belies the dynamism.

In this system patterns form and can be re-triggered. Memory is knowledge. But at the basic level of neurons and synapses it is only meaningless data. Zoom in on a tiny region of active computer memory and you won’t be able to tell if the states of its bits represent points on an image or parts of a number on a spreadsheet. The bits have meaning only in a ‘context’. So too with neurons in the brain.

And context is what meaning and knowledge is all about.

A person blind from birth has his sight restored. He looks at his wristwatch and can tell the time using sight, because his brain has built a contextual map where this thing on his wrist, through touch, has meaning, and it doesn’t take much for his brain to put the visual stimulus into that context. But someone points out a wall clock to him and it is a meaningless object. He can see the hands on the clock, the figures on it, but the context means nothing, and he does not ‘know’ this object.

As a personal experiment watch that common panel show game of zooming out of a close-up on some object until someone recognises what it is. This is the use of context. What might start as a small patch of colour, becomes a shape, but only a shape of no consequence, but as the zoom out continues other shapes and lines come into play, until BANG!, the Eureka moment, your brain has suddenly found a context for all those lines and shapes, as the image has reached sufficient content to be recognised.

Watch a skilful artist compose a picture with broad messy brush strokes, and then marvel when the picture starts to trigger meaningful components and at last you realise he is painting a landscape. Or watch with comic effect the emerging image as a cartoonist appears to have draw a naked women, only with last few brush strokes it becomes a face and you are shamed into admitting to having a filthy mind.

Knowledge is nothing but data in a larger contextual framework.

Humans emerge into the world knowingly, knowing they have knowledge, through the use of their brains. This feeling of having a mind is our first self-aware view of the world, and we take ‘the mental’ to be the primary way of seeing the world. It’s hard to know when this arises in infancy, because one has to go through lots of preliminary stages to acquire the brain function to be able to contemplate the notion of self-awareness, and by the time you get there you have left behind the unaware self in which that recognition was formulated.

It’s difficult to say how much we rely on language to help us better frame concepts in clear ways – might non-linguistically assisted concepts be more like an animal’s view of the world? Hard to say, because the human brain has evolved the capacity for language – though the specific language may not matter. Some apes can acquire limited language that is not up to the human level of capability, but still goes beyond the the natural capability of their species. To what extent does language contribute to knowledge? It appears quite a lot. But what is knowledge like in an animal without language? The origins of knowledge and of the development of knowledge understanding in the brain is so lost in infancy (and as a species lost in our evolutionary past) that we appear to ourselves as somewhat fully formed thinkers – albeit young naive ones.

We watch our children grow and become independent thinking minds – it’s a fascinating time from about one year old, to maybe about five, from where their learning becomes increasingly more like that of an adult. Repetition is used to fix knowledge in the brain – the words of songs, the names of characters on TV and in books. Working with favourite picture books is fascinating. We see a ‘mind’ evolve and emerge. Is this the process of creating an early context from within which future data takes its place to become knowledge in turn?

What we learn later is that we, the species, evolved from simpler creatures that had an entirely physical interaction with the world: the physical interaction caused by the electromagnetic forces that prevent atoms passing by each other – this is what gives physical contact it’s effect in such a small scale vacuous world of atoms, and later through chemical signals crossing cell and multicellular boundaries.

But, the action of sensory neurons and brain neurons is just more of the same. The brain neurons are, in all significant respects in this regard, the same as sensory neurons, but within the brain their greatest interaction is with similar neurons inside the skull, and there are relatively a few points of contact with peripheral neuron channels. The brain is as much a physically empirical entity as any single celled organism. On mass, they interact in such a way that the brain as a whole senses its own neutrons sensing itself, observes itself observing itself, and the end result is consciousness and self-awareness.

To figure out what consciousness is, don’t ask what it feels like to be a bat. Ask what it feels like to be a self-monitoring complex system that acquires data and stores it in complex contextual patterns such that when a pattern is retriggered by an external sensory event the ‘context’, the knowledge, is sparked into life, and in doing that the system ‘knows’, it is observing its own observing of a pattern, and the context of the pattern gives it meaning, illustrating to itself its knowledge. So, what is it like to be such a system? It is like this, like you and me being conscious, acquiring, reflecting upon and using knowledge.

This is quite different from the philosophical traditional view of knowledge. This sort of knowledge does not have to be true or justified, and I’m not so sure the holder of it has to actually believe it – not knowingly, for we seem to have a lot of knowledge that emerges from the depths, sometimes remarkably right, and often laughably wrong. So that gets rid of the need for JTB in its entirety.

The religious have knowledge when they tell us all about their religion. They use their scriptures to justify it, they believe it, generally, and they think it is true, generally. This is knowledge, about their religion. It may be that the propositions that their religions make about gods, miracles, and other stuff, do not correspond to a reality out there beyond their brains. This is a correspondence theory or truth, where truth relates to how well knowledge in someone’s head (the contextualised patterns that cause conscious ideas to have contextual meaning) corresponds to the external world. But that does not mean they have no knowledge of gods; but rather means that their knowledge of gods are inventions.

I think of religious knowledge and theology debated in seminaries as being nothing more that Star Trek conventions that result in offshoots of comics and stories not in the original, they expand on the original fiction with yet more fiction. Apologies to all the Trekkies I might have offended, because when you listen to what some religious people say you realise that they are in total fantasy worlds rather than science fiction ones – at least in science fiction there is often some requirement that there be some credibility to the inventions.

What about scientific knowledge? Scientific theories and explanations that help us understand the world are our inventions too. But they have that essential correspondence with the world that gives us a far greater claim to their truth and utility.

I accept all the problems of such a contingent correspondence theory. It is entirely contingent on the persuasiveness of evidence. And theists, among others, find it hard to deal with that. Problems for another time. As I said, I won’t justify every aspect of this here. I am simply presenting my view, in order to set a context of what follows. In that context, dualism is a necessary feature of most religions. But I’m amazed that any non-religious scientist of philosopher would fall for it.

The Garvey Interview

As Thomas Huxley vividly put it, such properties don’t do anything in the physical world, just as “the steam whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine is without influence upon its machinery”.

Well, that’s a load of crock. The steam whistle is a very direct influence on the locomotive’s machinery – it’s part of that machinery. It’s effect on the primary locomotive function is simply minor, without ‘significant’ influence, but not without influence.

You can see how this is a simple error for a dualist to make. If you are of a dualist persuasion you can imagine that things and events might not have any physical impact in some situations. One might, for example, dismiss the physical effect of light on an object – light seems far too ephemeral, in that it appears to present no obvious physical force; it does not move objects. But of course it does. It moves electrons into raised energy states, it imparts energy that on a large scale results in motion. A laser of sufficient intensity can quickly burn away surfaces of matter – in effect move by vaporisation – and yet the dull light from a candle in a room appears not to have any physical impact on the room. But it surely does – hold your hand over it and you’ll feel convected heat, but hold your hand close enough in front and you’ll feel the radiant heat.

The ‘mind’ is a model for that aspect of the brain’s working that appears superficially to have no influence on the actual physical nature of the brain, and under dualism the non-influence is mutual – except that as if by magic the mind causes the body to do things. As an abstract model of some functionality of the brain the mind only appears distinct. But the brain consumes energy as it thinks. Thinking is a physical electro-chemical, biological, thermodynamic process of the brain itself. This is more obvious now than it once was, and so it is becoming harder to hold to a dualist detachment. Everything we experience in the world has physical effects on it. The world, the universe, is a total interacting system. Even the vacuum of space is at the very least permitted by photons from the stars, and nobody doubts the radiant power of the sun on a clear summer’s day. Materialism forces itself upon us, and dualism has no supporting evidence.

If you think that Mary knew all the physical facts but learns something when she first sees red, then there’s more to know than just physical facts

No. You simply didn’t include the brain functions of perception of red in the knowledge Mary had. That’s still a physical theory about the brain perceiving – even if as yet still a poorly understood one. This is dualism of the gaps. And it illustrates the fault of the Knowledge Argument. The statement that Mary knew everything there is to know, is false, if physicalism holds.

If there is something extra, then either it’s physical and she didn’t know it, or you have neglected to include the hidden premise of there being some non-material knowledge unavailable to her that isn’t part of the physical science, in which case you are affirming the consequent.

Remarkably, Jackson has since somehow talked himself out of it all.

Not very convincingly if Garvey’s piece is any sign.

He now resolutely rejects dualism. I wonder how hard that must have been …

Why is Garvey not wondering how hard Jackson must have worked his cognitive wonders to remain a dualist for so long, if Garvey is not a dualist? What sort of non-dualist is he?

Jackson explains away his change of heart:

I had been a dualist for years. I was taught by Michael Bradley, and he had some good arguments for dualism. I always thought it was a plausible view. As I say in the beginning of ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’, we dualists don’t really need an argument to say that consciousness doesn’t fit into the physicalist world view. It’s just intuitively obvious.

This is abysmal philosophy. This is going right into my piece on ‘obvious’ screw ups. Stating the Bleeding Obvious. Why do philosophers insist on appealing to the obvious? Have they learned nothing from psychology and neuroscience, let alone a long history of illusions and delusions.

After explaining the origins of the original article Jackson says:

The follow up article (‘What Mary Didn’t Know’) came about after Paul Churchland wrote a not terribly friendly piece about the knowledge argument. I thought it was a bit offhand. I didn’t worry about him saying he didn’t believe it, that’s fine, but he sort of suggested it was making some kind of elementary error which anyone could pick up. Not quite as bad as affirming the consequent but pretty bad all the same.

Well, it is pretty much affirming the consequent when you piece the bits together. But interestingly here we see the very human Jackson responding to a perceived insult rather than a rational criticism.

That riled me slightly, and I regret to say the slight tone of irritation shows in the piece.

And Garvey says:

He actually says that with a slight tone of irritation. He looks a little riled now.

I wonder if that’s irritation at Churchland, or irritation with himself that a purveyor of reason could be so easily moved by inconsequential tone.

Garvey tells us more from a re-read of the papers, and in particular Churchland’s criticism:

Jackson is equivocating, using “knows about” in two different ways, talking about two different kinds of knowledge, and this renders the argument invalid. Once you spot this, Churchland beams, the argument is “a clear non sequitur …. Such arguments show nothing”. God, he even has a bit of fun with a parallel argument about ectoplasm. It doesn’t quite call for pistols at dawn, but I can see how Churchland might be read as being dismissive of the misguided little dualist. Maybe Jackson did well to be merely riled.

I can understand it might be frustrating to have made a mistake, but to be irritated by the fact that the mistake was pointed out, in some ‘tone’?

Garvey gives us a bit more, and includes Nagel’s bat thing:

“That’s the biographical background to it,” he continues. “Now, exactly why that particular version of the knowledge argument popped into my head – I do not know,” he says, genuinely mystified. Maybe he read Broad’s short argument many years earlier, and although he forgot about it, it might have exerted some unconscious influence. But he certainly had seen Thomas Nagel’s 1974 essay, “What is it like to be a bat?”, and maybe that did figure in somehow. There, Nagel writes about batty subjectivity – what it’s like to be a bat and experience a sonar image of the world – which he argues is only accessible to bats. He concludes that “it is a mystery how the true character of experiences could be revealed in the physical operation of that organism.” The conclusion is importantly different to Jackson’s: it’s not that physicalism is false, but that we can’t understand what it might mean to say that it’s true. Jackson says something of Nagel might have been on his mind, maybe he was trying to make a similar point without all of the complexity of Nagel’s piece.

The subjectivity of our personal view of our consciousness is a red herring when it comes to studying consciousness. We can study cosmology, using science to tell us much about the universe, but looking up at the stars, enjoying a sunset, reading the digital data from a deep space observation, …, all that humans do in science is done through the personal perspective of our personal consciousness, but we don’t let that get in the way of finding out how it all works.

Why is the brain any different? Why must one presuppose there is a dualist mind just because it feels like there is one? It is one of the dumbest philosophical remains of pre-scientific times – excusable back then, but not now.

Garvey continues to quote the interviewed Jackson’s take on that original argument:

“Although I now think it’s mistaken,” he begins, “the essential thought behind the argument is simply that when Mary has colour experiences, her conception of the kinds of properties that are instantiated in our world gets dramatically expanded. In theory it’s no different than coming across a new sort of animal. How many different sorts of dogs are there? People think they’ve gotten on top of it, but they turn the corner, and the see a completely different dog from any dog they’ve got on their inventory. So they enlarge their conception of how many kinds of dogs there are. What happens to Mary is that she has a certain view of what the world’s like, a black and white view, and all the stuff that comes to her from the physical sciences. And when she sees colour for the first time I think the plausible thing to say is that she gets an enlarged idea of what kinds of properties there are to be encountered in the world. She comes across new properties.”

And Garvey tells us:

When Jackson lays it out like that, crystal clear, it’s hard not to feel a certain insecurity about physicalism. What else can you say, except that Mary learns about a new part of the world when she sees colour for the first time? But Jackson is a latter day physicalist. How did he talk himself out of dualism?

What? The dog analogy is totally bogus. To use the dog analogy correctly you’d have to use it in the way the knowledge argument puts things: Mary knows all breeds of dogs there are. When she leaves the lab she does not see any breed of dog she hasn’t seen before. But, using the erroneous knowledge argument: Mary knows all breeds of dogs (except the one we are hiding from her) and when she leaves the room she sees a breed she hasn’t seen before, therefore Mary could not have seen all breeds of dog, and so physicalism is false.

The original knowledge argument does some dog breed, sorry, colour knowledge, hiding from Mary. It hides that breed of knowledge called personal acquired experiential knowledge but makes the false claim that Mary knows all there is to know about breeds of colour knowledge. By excluding the experience of colour the argument is presupposing that such an experience is not included in all knowledge, that it is not part of the physical world, and that, hey presto, the argument proves there is more than the physical: affirming the consequent.

Jackson again, reflecting on his dualism:

We know enough about the world to know that these extra properties which I believe in aren’t guiding my pen as I write the article saying qualia are left out of our physical picture of the world. In ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’ I explain why it’s not such a disaster being an epiphenomenalist, but I came to think of this as a triumph of philosophical ingenuity over common sense. This is what someone who’s done a good philosophy degree can somehow make seem all right, but if you look at it in a more commonsensical way it’s actually pretty implausible. So the epiphenomenal stuff was just very hard to believe.

I’m afraid I am stumped by my (our) lack of understanding of brains, a failing that is preventing me from understanding how a supposedly good mind can fall for utter fantasy: “these extra properties which I believe in aren’t guiding my pen as I write the article saying qualia are left out of our physical picture of the world” – No they are not. They are very much in it as a mechanistic view. All that’s missing is an appreciation and an understanding of what complex mechanisms, as instantiated in human brains, can actually do.

For a while I was at the stage of people who say, there must be something wrong with the knowledge argument. It’s not obvious, despite the fact that some people jump up and down and say it’s obvious, because look at all these smart people giving quite different diagnoses of what’s wrong. That tells you it’s not obvious what’s wrong with it.

It isn’t obvious experientially, because we feel dualistic, because the brain’s self-monitoring doesn’t go so deep as to reveal the biological mechanisms to itself. But following science and all it exposes about the nature of the world, and the total lack of anything actually dualistic outside this ‘apparent’ dualism, and with lots of other brain anomalies to give us a clue that feelings on the matter might be mistaken, isn’t that enough to make the dualist stop and think?

Apparently not. Dualists, like their theological comrades, seem to be stuck with inescapable biases. Except now, Jackson seems to be escaping. Let’s see how he’s doing.

I was in that situation, thinking there’s got to be something wrong with it but not sure what it was. And then I decided that the best way out is to think in representationalist terms about phenomenal experience. When you think in those terms, what you’re thinking is that when something looks red to you, don’t think of that as a relationship between you and an instance of some special property. Think of it as representing things as being a certain way. You don’t think of it in relational terms, you think in propositional terms, as a kind of intentional state.

Well, that may be the decline of his dualism, but it’s a long way off the simplicity of physicalism. In physicalism as I see it the brain is a mechanism that monitors itself monitoring the world, and monitors itself monitoring itself, possibly through many channels. What emerges is a process or collection of processes that reports to itself. And, this is what it feels like when the brain does this. Conscious experience is a much higher version of what it feels like to be a bat, or what it feels like to be a computer program, to be a thermostat.

We only label it consciousness in the way we label a storm a storm, without labelling any rain drop or moving molecule of air a storm. The storm emerges as something that human brains can recognise and categorise through experience of seeing storms. Consciousness emerges somewhere as we progress from forming our first differentiated brain cells to the stage of passing the self-awareness test of an infant and going on to be a self-contemplative adult.

The odd thing about consciousness that’s different to a storm is that the storm is categorised by the brain as being something outside the brain, while consciousness is being categorised by the very brain experiencing the consciousness internally, such that it becomes the brains identity, and mistakenly thought of as a dualist mind.

Of course, that early zygote consists of cells that are experiencing their world too – just not in the silly way in which the religious imagine a soul to be inhabiting it, and not with the complexity and self-referential experience of a fully formed brain.

Jackson doesn’t seem interested in any of this real physicalist stuff. His focus is not the brain but this mysterious self-reflective view of a dualist mind trying to think of itself as a physicalist thing. He seems confused to me:

When you think in those terms, it’s a mistake to wonder where the special redness is. What you have to ask yourself is, when something looks red, how am I representing the world to be? And if you’re convinced that you’re representing the world such that it has some special property outside the physical picture of the world, and you think physicalism is plausible, then of course you think it’s a case of false representation. Then you better have some story about how looking red represents things to be, and what that to be is, and how it can be found in a physical picture of what the world’s like.

When I’m talking about representation I’m talking about a state where you’re invited to have a certain view about how things are. Of course you may reject it. When you have those famous perceptual illusions, and you know they’re illusions, you’re in a state which invites you to think that some line is curved. You know perfectly well it’s not curved. Nevertheless you’re in a state which sort of says to you, ‘This is the way things are! This is the way things are!’ That’s what I mean by a representation.

There are two types of effect we think of as optical illusions:

  • Optical Effect – The bent pencil as it passes from air to water. This is a genuine effect of optics that delivers light to the eye in different ways according to the medium. This is just what a telescope does. Light passes through a medium such that distant small looking objects appear nearer and so larger.
  • Brain (Mental) Illusion – These are not strange optical effects. The light coming from the parallel lines that Jackson refers to is genuinely representing parallel lines, but they appear not to be parallel. Dangle a wire frame Necker cube, rotating, at a certain distance, an maintain your view and it will appear to change direction. The former is caused by the brain’s interpretation of the lines as being non-parallel. The latter is caused because the light coming from the Necker cube is consistent, to without our perceptual capacity, with rotation in either direction, and the brain can’ make up its ‘mind’.

The problem I see Jackson having is he’s still trying to deal with this in non-physical terms, in philosophical language terms that do not use any knowledge about brains. He’s working in the wrong domain. And if he can see illusions so clearly, why can’t he see the ‘mental’ nature of illusions such that they make dualism ‘obviously’ and illusion rather than obviously true?

Garvey asks Jackson for his physicalist view of Mary:

Mary clearly enters a new representational state when she leaves the room. That should be common ground. If you’re a physicalist, then you’ve got two things to say. You’re either going to say, why doesn’t she get new knowledge? Well, she already had it. If she already had it then you have to answer the question, what property do her newer experiences represent things as having which she knew about in the room? Maybe she didn’t know about it under the name ‘red’, but if she’s in a new representational state, and things are as they’re being represented to be, and she doesn’t learn anything new about the world, you need to give an answer to what looking red represents things as being, where the content of the representation can be expressed in physical terms. Alternatively, you can say it’s a false representation. Colour is an illusion. You have to say one or the other.

Or, you could say that colour experience is part of colour knowledge, possibly the main part – how could we come to the other colour knowledge that the Mary problem speaks of, formulate theories of colour, understanding the science of colour, had we been blind animals?

When the knowledge argument claims Mary knows everything there is to know while in the room is not only false, it’s missing the biggest physicalist example of colour knowledge, the acquisition through the eyes of colour data.

The other flaw with the Mary problem is that Mary is an evolved human being and as such may well have internal brain experiences that correspond to seeing colour – such as when one has a bump on the head, presses on the eyelid or eye, stimulating the visual areas of the brain. Is it the case that blind people see colour because they have colour capable brains but don’t recognise the colour experience for what it is? Many questions go unanswered with the Mary knowledge problem.

So, another option is that Mary has a colour capable brain and actually does see colour, and that with all the other science data does in fact have a brain that experiences colour, so that when she leaves the room and sees her first colour object she says, “Oh yes, that’s red. I’ve seen that in my internal experiences.” In which case Mary does not learn anything new on leaving the room.

Yet another option is that the science information is so good that it is able, without introducing colour light through the eyes, to cause brain events that Mary experiences as colour, such that when she leaves the room and encounters red she gets has the same sort of brain experience. But, I suspect that furturistic notion of the capabilities of brain stimulation would be too much for a poor old philosopher stuck in the philosophical dark ages.

I’m not impressed with Jackson’s physicalism at all.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I go for the illusion view,…

So, not really clear on it then.

But if we do the physics … but that’s mostly a matter for physics, not philosophy.

Along with neuroscience, biology, psychology, … Exactly.

Garvey chips in with his perspective, and it all sounds very wooish:

That thought about science brings us neatly to another point against physicalism made by Jackson in his dualist days. Physicalism is an extraordinarily optimistic view of our mental capacities – in principle, we’ve pretty much got a grip on all that there is, the physical stuff that makes up our world, and we’re on our way to understanding it. But if our understanding is shaped by the need to survive – our brain is an evolved thing, after all – isn’t it likely that there are vast parts of the universe that we’ll never get a grip on, just because it never mattered in our evolutionary history? Doesn’t this suggest that physicalism almost certainly leaves some of the universe out? Maybe the mental side of us or some part of it?

Oh for crying out loud. Physicalism is neutral, neither optimistic or pessimistic – it’s prersepctive of the reality of the brain-mind issue, weighing up evidence and argument. Why do philosophers cloak their arguments in emotive terms so often?

Show that there is any evidence whatsoever that there might be anything to any ‘mental’ dualist ideas. While you’re doing that, reflect on how our ideas of the mental world probably came about because we didn’t have an understanding of small physical scale large time scale changes such that evolution could result in complex biological mechanisms that do this thing we do.

There never was any need to pretend that consciousness is something fundamentally different from physical stuff in action. We simply made a mistake because that’s the only perspective we had. As a species and as individuals we sort of woke up after a long empirical non-thinking past and started thinking, and one of the things we thought was, wow, I think, therefore I’m a mind.

Yes, there are unknown reaches of reality that we haven’t and maybe can’t ever explore. But we know as much as we do thank’s to the physical sciences. And I include what are perceived to be mental sciences like psychology: psychology is a black box science that came before white box neuroscience. Think of psychology to neuroscience as the ideal gas laws are to particle physics – large scale science based on external appearances without any information on the small scale action. Except that we’re talking about the different between a balloon and a brain, so the brain is far more complex.

Garvey goes on to bring up the ‘slugist’ analogy from Jackson’s past, as Garvey seems keen to rescue dualism. It’s another dumb analogy. The slugists go on to discover more of the same type of physical stuff far above the sea bed. They might even discover very clever human automata. They don’t discover woo. So, no, the mistake the slugists make isn’t the same as Garvey imagines physicalists make. On the other hand the soft-minded sluggists make exactly the kind of mistake dualists make: imagining there’s something for which there is no evidence, and that pulling crap analogies out of their asses to support the idea. Never any actual evidence though. Of course the slugist is yet another sort of affirming the consequent.

And so Jackson responds to Garvey’s prompt for what this story tells us:

i.e. We don’t know everything …

What it says is this. Isn’t it common sense that there are things that we don’t know about the world? Even the most enthusiastic physicalist has to say there are gaps in our knowledge. It’s at least plausible that it goes much beyond that – it’s not just that there are problems in quantum mechanics. It might be that there’s a whole range of properties that we don’t and can’t know about because they don’t impinge on us.

Yes, it is common sense to think that there are things that we don’t know about the world. But dualism amounts to giving up on physicalist on the off chance there might be fairies. This is exactly the game that the religious play.

Theist – We don’t know everything. There might be a God. So I think there is one.

Dualist – We don’t know everything. There might be a dualist mind. So I think there is one.

Fairyist – We don’t know everything. There might be fairies. So I think there are.

Chopra – We don’t know everything. There might be a fundamental consciousness everywhere. So I think there is.

Homeopathist – We don’t know everything. There might be a real beneficial effect of my woo meds. So I think there is.

Repeat, for unicorns, ghosts, the afterlife (religious or not), …

These are exactly comparable positions of picking one’s favourite woo, and from the fact that we don’t know everything assume ‘my’ pet woo is true.

It is embarrassingly shamefully awful philosophy.

There’s an interesting paper by David Lewis called ‘Ramseyan Humility’ … there might be a whole range of properties we can’t know about, because permuting them doesn’t make any difference at the level in which we interact with the world.

Fine, but just as long as you accept that you are letting fairies and astrology. Perhaps fairies are so mysterious that they only interact with this world by moving my keys from where I left them. Perhaps the effects of astrology are so imperceptible that we can live our lives as if it’s total bollocks. Seriously Frank, just play out these silly interpretations of basic epistemological uncertainty the way you do with the dualist mind.

We act as if there are no fairies, not because we have refuted every crackpot notional story about them that makes them sound feasible, but because no positive evidence exists for them.

Astrology has not been proven beyond all doubt not to work, it has been proven beyond all doubt that it appears not to make a blind bit of difference is there’s anything in it. Saying that astrology doesn’t work at all is just a learned shortcut for making this same point but skipping the unnecessary over humility that you are appealing to.

It’s a bit like that thought experiment: maybe there’s a matter version of our world, and an antimatter version, and there are duplicates of you and me, but one’s made of matter and the other’s made of antimatter. You can’t know whether we’re in the matter world or the antimatter one.

No it isn’t!

The matter v anti-matter dichotomy is arbitrary. What we call anti-matter they call matter, and we are their anti-matter (I’m ignoring the total bollocks of ‘other worlds’ that supposes someone like us. Another day.) They are arbitrary by definition. Like 1/0, true/false, +/-.

So the arbitrary nature of that dichotomy is nothing like the scale of epistemological uncertainty about unicorns or minds.

Garvey tries to take it in but remains puzzled at jacksons conversion:

I take the point that a physicalist can be humble, but I’m still left with doubts about Mary. In the end, somehow, I don’t entirely buy Jackson’s new reply to that old question: does she learn anything or not? I’m still back where he was some years ago – I’ve got the feeling something’s wrong with the argument, but I don’t know what it is.

Because he’s right for the wrong reasons. His isn’t physicalism in its strictest sense, but using some vague airy fairy philosopher language with outdated concepts to try to come to terms with the appreciation that the knowledge argument is full of holes.

Jackson might have talked himself out of the knowledge argument’s conclusion, but I still don’t know. I’m no dualist, but there’s something about Mary.

No, there isn’t. It really is very simple. Start with this:

1 – Colour is experiential knowledge. It’s brain states and the conscious processes of multiple levels of feedback recycling signals. It’s the brain knowing what red is.

Then some possible interpretations of what’s going on in the room:

2a – It was incorrect to claim Mary learned everything about colour while in the room, from her black and white screen. Her brain, never having seen red had no knowledge of it, so she was lacking complete physicalist experiential knowledge.

2b – It was incorrect to claim Mary learned everything about colour while in the room, from her black and white screen. Her brain, never having seen colour in the room, did experience rods and cones being stimulated by her rubbing her eyes such that her brain experienced and gained knowledge of red, because she has an evolved brain and eyes with that capacity. This is contestable, based on any experiments about depriving eyes and brains of the correct stimulation during development. However, I know how thought experiments stretch truths to make exactly the point the author wants them to make, so maybe skip this. Hence …

2c – It was correct that Mary knew everything because the screen emitted science included mesmerising signals that stimulated an experience of red.

And corresponding events outside the room:

3a – From 2a, Mary gains the physicalist experience of red on the eyes and its corresponding stimulation of the brain. But since the full knowledge premise was false, the knowledge argument fails.

3b – From 2b, Mary sees red on leaving the room and says, “Oh, there’s some red.” No new knowledge is gained. The argument fails.

3c – From 2c, Mary recognises red on leaving the room. The argument fails.

Is the conclusion of all this that physicalism is necessarily true? No. Because my interpretation above presupposes colour experience is a phsyicalist mechanistic brain effect and that consciousness is a process of such a brain.

All this goes to show is that the Mary colour scientist knowledge argument is entirely useless at showing us anything except how poor philosophy can be. It shows us how philosophers can waste years on such a poor thoughtless experiment.

God Probabilities Are Pointless, Even From Physicists

Physicist Sean Carroll indulges one of his physics colleagues in a post Guest Post: Don Page on God and Cosmology. Sean:

Don Page is one of the world’s leading experts on theoretical gravitational physics and cosmology, as well as a previous guest-blogger around these parts. … He is also, somewhat unusually among cosmologists, an Evangelical Christian, and interested in the relationship between cosmology and religious belief.

From here on I’ll address Don on his piece, by picking up only the statements I think are really problematic. I’m basically repeating what I wrote in the comments section, with some minor mods.

So, Don you say this:

… such as my assumption that the world is the best possible …

Why would anyone make such an assumption? Based on what? Compared to what? What’s a worse world? What are the metrics? The comment by Phillip Helbig says it all:

The optimist believes that he lives in the best of all possible worlds. So does the pessimist.

Back to you Don:

I mainly think philosophical arguments might be useful for motivating someone

Like propaganda? It is clear that theists are manipulating and abusing philosophy, logic, reason, evidence, to make it best fit their beliefs.

… raise the prior probability someone might assign to theism. I do think that if one assigns theism not too low a prior probability …

You shouldn’t have a prior probability about something for which you have zero data. The prior probability isn’t 100%, isn’t 0%, isn’t 50% – it’s unknown. No data. Making a guess, or expressing a bias from personal religiosity and assigning a probability is doing a great injustice to probability.

the historical evidence for the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus

What, like hearsay of Josephus passed off as evidence? There is no historical record of the words or teachings of Jesus. The death? We can barely support his existence, by extensive hearsay, but as ‘evidence’ it’s no better than claims made about Mohammed’s revelations. By the way, how do you set the prior probability that Mohammed was telling the truth about his revelations, or the likelihood he was lying, or that he was delusional? What’s the prior probability that Jesus was a nutty preacher. Using the statistics of what we do know about how common nutty preachers were at the time the best evidence we have is he’s one of many. I’d really like to know on what basis all this is judged remotely true.

Ben Goran in the comments refers to Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. Good choice.

… can lead to a posterior probability for theism (and for Jesus being the Son of God) being quite high.

This really will not do. For miraculous things to happen, such as a resurrection, you need a God. You presuppose a God. Then you find stuff that’s in a book that says, look, here’s a miracle of that God – without any evidence it happened beyond hearsay, and again I remind you your hearsay is competing with that about Mohammed. Then you say, look, it’s all real, Christianity rules, OK.

But if one thinks a priori that theism is extremely improbable, then the historical evidence for the Resurrection would be discounted and not lead to a high posterior probability for theism.

Don, you are mistaken in that direction too. This is really important! There is no need to think theism is improbable. One has only to be totally open to it, and then look at the evidence. There is none. What is offered as evidence turns out to be: unevidenced hearsay, nothing that can’t be illusions and delusions, lies and propaganda – and all these have at least some actual prior probabilities because we know that these latter human frailties do actually occur.

I tend to favor a Bayesian approach in which one assigns prior probabilities

But Bayesian stuff works only when you have actual statistics to form your prior probabilities. Even if they are as flaky as much statistical evidence is (and we know how we often reach wrong conclusions about the efficacy of medicines in that arena), at least it’s actual data of a sort. But for universe creation and gods it’s no better than a pretence at mathematical credibility when there’s no data to work with.

… when the product is normalized by dividing by the sum of the products for all theories

This is crazy talk. Are probabilities based on the human capacity to imagine ideas, invent fantasies? is the correct probability determined by one’s own credibility? This is not to be treated like some meta-analysis of numerous sets of actual statistical results. It’s a meta-analysis of guesses. It’s pointless.

… since we don’t yet have _any_ plausible complete theory for the universe to calculate the conditional probability, given the theory, of any realistic observation.

So, the correct response to the question of whether there is some sort of intelligent agent creator of universes is to say: I haven’t got the foggiest clue.

From there proceed to act on what we do have. The empirical investigation of the universe and what that tells us. Our understanding of minute physics may still be open to question, but at the level of chemistry, creating medicines, building planes that don’t fall out the sky randomly – and it’s all quite mechanistic, naturalistic.

The working conclusion, then, is to live **as if** this: that what we empirically find is all there is, whether it is or not, because if we cannot detect a god of any kind knowingly then whether there is one or not makes no difference. It really is that simple.

However, since to me the totality of data, including the historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, is most simply explained by postulating that there is a God …

What? We’ll come back to evidence shortly, but for now let’s just go back to an earlier point, from above:

can lead to a posterior probability for theism (and for Jesus being the Son of God) being quite high

And let’s put these together:

  1. the historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, is most simply explained by postulating that there is a God
  2. can lead to a posterior probability for theism [i.e. there is a God]

So, postulating a God basically leads to a posterior probability that there is a God. And, while we’re at it, the assertion that the resurrection occurred is used to show that Jesus was resurrected [because he really was the son of God].

Doesn’t that look just a tad suspicious? Don, that looks embarrassing to me.

This is no more than affirming the consequent, invoking a circular argument. Don, you could only make an argument if you had good evidence of a God, and then good evidence of a naturalism busting resurrection. You have evidence of neither. You are presupposing there’s a God that can do stuff like resurrections, taking one of the many myths and taking that to be caused by this presupposed God, and then using that resurrection as the evidence of the divine Jesus, who is God. What? Seriously, What?

But on the matter of evidence, the pretend evidence for the resurrection is most simply explained by being the myth of one of the many myth asserting religions, and that people that believed in gods in ancient times were probably even more gullible than people today. Don, you think they may not have been so gullible. How gullible do you think Scientologists are? What are your probabilities for the existence of Thetans? How about Joseph Smith? Not convinced? Well, a hell of large number of reasonably well educated 21st century people believe that nonsense. Can you see why it’s far more reasonable to think these ancients were duped, or self-duped?

I do believe by faith…

Oh no! Don, please! Not the faith get out of jail card? Well, okay, in which case you can dismiss all you said before this point as it means nothing now in this context. All that effort doing just what William Lane Craig does, pretending to use reason and evidence and probabilities picked out of your nether regions – even though you reject some of WLC’s reasoning. And all it really took is faith. Why not faith in Mohammed? Well, you’re a Christian. Is that how you do your physics?

We simply do not know whether or not our universe had a beginning, but there are certainly models

See, you can do it correctly if you try. We simply do not know. And, for God there are no models that are based on other confirmed models of physics and cosmology. Sean’s work and your work in physics and cosmology does not come out of nowhere, but all religions do: there’s always someone that we know invented a religion, or the origins of the religion are lost entirely in time. You really should be applying this cosmological scepticism to God: we do not know and we have no models and no data. There are no measurements, no mathematic models, nothing but hearsay and the occasional claims of messianic individuals that think they are hooked up with their own god.

In summary, I think the evidence from fine tuning is ambiguous

Ambiguous? It’s down right dumb. What do we know about the extra-universe ‘physics’ of universe creation, such that it does not necessarily cause universes just like this one. What if all universe necessarily must have the physics of this one, because of some as yet unknown extra-universe feature? How do we know that all these universes are not such that only initial conditions determine whether life evolves abundantly, rarely or not at all. We don’t know that the constants that **allow** evolved life actually **necessitate** evolved life. With different initial conditions it could be that the universe evolve without ever experiencing intelligent life that goes on to wonder if the universe is fine tuned. We’d then have a ‘fine tuned’ universe tuned with no tuned products in it. What reason would we have to think such a universe is fine tuned?

There’s a big difference between:

– Speculative interpretations of limited cosmological data with multiple speculatively viable theories


– Believing ancient religious stories based on stuff that’s indistinguishable from all the other stories you too would pass off as myth

That difference is that with physics one does not tend to make assertions about behaviour any morality based on them – unless they very specifically inform our understanding of human behaviour and morality, such as evolution, psychology, neuroscience. There are no moral or behavioural prescriptions or proscriptions associated with Sean’s preference for Everett, but there are real human consequences that result from people believing stuff for which there is no evidence, in religion, and the consequences are all too often not good ones.

Look at it this way:

Problem 1: A company makes bags of 100 black balls, but manufacturing errors cause some balls to be white. We know the limits: 100 black, 100 white. We know from experience that people complain if they have more than 40 white balls. We do some tests and stuff. We play with probabilities. We use Bayes. We run controlled trials. Whatever. It’s real if uncertain data. What’s the probability of getting a bag with 100 black balls? We can start to look into it, come to some conclusions, do more measurements, more sampling, more calculations.

Problem 2: How are universes made? We don’t know. As an analogy for this, this is me telling you there’s a bag out there; possibly an infinitely large bag; and it might have some balls in it or it might not. If it has, then some might be black, or not. Some might be white, or not. The bag might contain refrigerators rather than balls, or not. Now, what are you going to tell me about the content of the bag – the probability that there are 100 black balls in the bag, that there’s God in the bag, ten gods, …? Nothing. Oh, and there might not actually be a bag out there; there might just be this universe.

Problem 1 is the sort of problem we can play with. Problem 2 is God stuff. The former is the reality we have to deal with. The latter is make believe – faith, indeed.

Mehdi Hasan Destroys Islam

Mehdi Hasan destroys Islam. He doesn’t mean to, but as he thinks he’s distancing Islam from ISIS he picks so many reasons for rejecting Islam. Good job, Mehdi.

In this online CNN video, Does ISIS have any religious legitimacy?, Mehdi Hasan debates with Graeme Wood over Wood’s piece on ISIS. Mehdi responded in his own article, which had lots of holes in it and begged and received criticism. Poor sap Mehdi just can’t stop putting his foot in his mouth.

Mehdi Hasan has put a lot of effort into declaring ISIS to be un-Islamic to the point of denying they are Islamic at all.

Mehdi insists there are motivations other than Islam for people joining ISIS. Even if religion were not the main motivating factor that gets them going, that wouldn’t mean they were not Islamic in what they do, in what they believe. When Christians go to war quoting God’s words it doesn’t make them non-Christian. May make them awful Christians, but still Christian. That someone has some other prime motivation for what they do, but they are Muslims when they do it, and use their Islamic texts selectively to justify themselves, does not make them un-Islamic.

Mehdi does not use all the texts of Islam – he is a liberal or moderate (hard to tell, he’s so slippery) Muslim. So he too is uni-Islamic, by his own standards of reasoning. ISIS are cherry picking, using a fringe interpretation? Sure. But ‘nice’ Muslims like Mehdi have to cherry pick too, to ignore the crazy stuff, or they have to come up with ‘scholarly’ reasons for justifying it ‘in context’.

Mehdi doesn’t want us to take what ISIS say as ‘gospel’. I don’t. But I don’t take as gospel anything Mehdi Hasan says on Islam. Muslims denouncing other Muslims is a Takfir game, and Mehdi is just as guilty of it as ISIS when they denounce liberal and moderate Muslims.

Mehdi is sceptical about ISIS claims to be holy warriors? Why? Religions are not necessarily non-warrior like, non-cruel, non-peaceful. The claims in Islam to be the religion of peace are contradicted explicitly by many parts of the texts. And if we must take those cruel texts with some nuance and context why can’t we apply nuance and context to the explicit claim that Islam the religion of peace? Double standards. Mehdi, like many religious people, likes to apply nuance and context to excuse the awful texts, but then come over all literal when it suits them. It is a literalist view that there really is a god, Allah.

Religion is the factor. Not the only one, but arguably the major one. No persecuted Jews or Hindus are radicalised to the extent that many Muslims are, such that international terrorism by so many Islamic groups plagues our age. That there are other factors doesn’t negate religion as a significant one if not the primary one. All the terrorist groups killing around the world in the name of Islam are testament to the Islamic nature of their terrorist activities.

Mehdi thinks that people are leaving London to join ISIS for other reasons than their Islamic perspective. The Islamic texts excuse the radicalisation in response to other factors in a way that other religions currently do not. It’s easy for Christians to distance themselves from the older texts of the Bible.

And what of the idea that ISIS are an unscholarly fringe cult and not really true Islam? Doesn’t matter. Compared to Christianity Islam is a minority religion. So is Judaism. We don’t deny someone’s claim to religion based on minority status.

Why can’t *very* Islamic be used to describe those that adhere to a more literal interpretation of the most vile cherry picked texts? Mehdi is not *very* Islamic according to conservatives that don’t accept his liberalism.

Mehdi wonders, “Why can’t we find *learned* scholars…” to support ISIS? This is very convenient move by scholars that want to distance themselves from ISIS. But we can find many scholars in Islamic states spouting similar rhetoric to ISIS on many counts. Saudi is executing people for trivial acts that shouldn’t even be crimes (and Mehdi the liberal would agree). Mehdi mentions the Grand Mufti of Saudi? Really? has he been tuning into that guy’s recent bollocks? You need to pick better advocates for your ‘nice’ Islam, Mehdi.

That the Islamic credentials of ISIS are disputed does not mean they are not Islamic. Sunni v Shia go through this process of denouncing each other. I’ve been told by Shias that I should listen only to good Shia scholars. And by Sunnis that say that only Sunni scholars have a correct interpretation. Takfir talking twits.

“They tell western journalists that they are serious about their faith, and we believe them…” – And inherent in that statement is the implication that we should believe Mehdi’s version of Islam is Islamic? Get over yourself, Mehdi. It is sufficient to simply observe. If they talk like Muslims, walk like Muslims, behead like Saudi Muslims, and match their behaviour to the texts, then ISIS are Muslims.

Mehdi foolishly appeals to other ideological states to excuse Islam and reject ISIS. He mentions North Korea. We don’t consider North Korea to be democratic because they are not, by any sense of democracy. But there is no way that ISIS are not Islamic – they pray, follow the texts – even if they are extreme and have a brutal interpretation.

Wood: “They [ISIS scholars] are not making things up” – Well, no more than any other Muslim scholars. In a world of religious bullshit how do you judge the validity of one bullshitter over many others?

Mehdi again: Naive recruits are buying “Islam for Dummies”, so this shows they are not true Muslims? Does this happen often, all the time, for all recruits? Let’s put aside how often that happens. More important to note is that such dummies can turn to violence so easily and find justification for it in Islamic texts. This means that the Islamic texts are dangerous weapons!

Handing a Quran to an ignoramus is no better than giving a child a loaded automatic weapon. This ‘naive unscholarly’ point is not making a good case for Islam. Quite the opposite, it is endorsing the case made by Sam Harris. This is exactly what he has been saying, that many Muslims do in fact interpret the texts literally. No amount of scholarly mental gymnastics is going to fix this. In fact the more scholarly learning is require the more dangerous the raw texts are. They are awful texts. So, yes, Islam (as described in the texts) is the mother lode of bad ideas.

Wood: “They are serious about the texts.” Even if they are in disagreement with Muslim scholarship through the ages it does not mean they are not motivated by their religion.

Are ISIS a revolutionary form of Islam? If they are, that may mean that they are not practising Mehdi Hasan’s Islam; but that doesn’t mean it is not Islam.

Again, even if they were universally declared to be un-Islamic, and even if they said, “Look, we are not Muslims, we are not Islamic, but we’re using the Islamic texts to determine what we do.” then, that merely goes to show again how awful these texts are: they can be turned to such brutal use; they contain brutal prescriptions.

Mehdi asks again, why we should think them scholarly when *all of Islam* scholars, whether conservative or liberal, Sufi or Salafi, Sunni or Shia, reject ISIS. Come on Mehdi, all those factions reject each other, you twit. Note the implication that *all Muslims* have a unity to them – and people like Sam Harris get criticised for being too general in their language? A unity of convenience. The duplicity stinks to high heaven.

So, Harris says ‘Islam’ is bad, based on the texts and how far too many interpretations of it are barbaric, from the implementations of Sharia in some states, to the killing of people by Muslim mobs around the world, and even to the homophobic hatred expressed by ‘moderate’ Muslims. And for this his critics claim he is injuring ALL Muslims. But then, Muslims like Mehdi Hasan are quick to defend Islam, ALL Islam, while being part of the Islamic tradition that denounces fellow Muslims as un-Islamic. It’s impossible to have an honest debate with people like Mehdi Hasan.

Mehdi: “No serious person would call the Branch Davidians Christian?” Well, quite. But the Roman Catholics thought the Anglican Church of Henry VIII to be non-Christian. This happens throughout the ages. There are always schisms. Again, Islam even has a tool, Takfir, for dealing with this, where other faiths only have heresy.

Mehdi comes back to the religious novices. Again that isn’t a good response. It just shows how dangerous the texts are that they can be used to incite such novices to ideological violence.

Mehdi thinks drugs alcohol and petty crime are responsible? That’s bullshit. The fact that many of these people are bright promising students is completely ignored by Mehdi Hasan.

But, I take his point, that some of the ignorant youths joining ISIS are not well educated. But I take it further. Very few if any Muslims conform to scholarly Islam – they do their own reasonable thing – unless incited to riot and rage by clerics and other Islam Dummies. This isn’t really saying much for Islam. Christianity does a lot of saving souls of druggies, but Islam makes it easy to recruit them for ISIS? Mehdi, please, this is not a good case you are making.

Mehdi: ISIS is about real holy warriors trading in porn? Well, sexual interest has never been a bar to religious belief. Neither has child abuse. So, Islam is so bad that it can’t prevent you doing the very things that some of its teachings forbid? Islam really is crap isn’t it. You heard that from Mehdi Hasan. Islamic texts can be used to incite people to violence, AND can’t dissuade them from using porn. OK.

Mehdi explains that few extremists are Islamic scholars. Well, neither are most Muslims. But again, that doesn’t bode well when dangerous Islamic texts prescribing all sorts of punishments, such as stoning adulterers to death, are as freely available as dangerous guns in the US. Telling us that people that join ISIS aren’t real scholars tells us all we need to know about the Islamic texts: not to be used by non-scholars.

Mehdi, “They [ISIS] pepper their language with Islamic quotations. Of course they do, it’s the best way to recruit people.” – What? So, here we have Mehdi Hasan telling us how good the texts of Islam are for recruiting Jihadists. After spending so much time telling us it’s not about religion he now admits that the Islamic texts are great extremists recruitment texts! Incredible.

Mehdi thinks that the Nazi party isn’t explained by Mein Kampf? You need the Treaty of Versailles, he says, to understand the Nazis? What on earth is he talking about? Of course you can get a lot about the Nazis from Mein Kampf, but like the Quran it’s not the only texts that the Nazis depend on. And the Hadith supplement the Quran superbly for Jihadists recruitment. Well done Mehdi, ISIS Sales Rep of the Year. You cannot understand ISIS by watching its videos and taking them literally? Well, those sources help; and of course you can read the Quran and Hadith it to clinch it. Wood responds: could you understand Nazism without Mein Kampf? We have to understand what the ideology is. And it is Islamic, without a shadow of a doubt. That Mehdi Hasan invokes Takfir on ISIS, and they on him, is not really making a case of any virtue.

Mehdi belittles ISIS propaganda. Is it a fair representation of what an Islamic state would be like? No, surely not, we hope. But if you think that gets Islam a pass you are very much mistaken. If you think *any* Islamic state there has ever been is worth having you are not getting the message about what liberal non-Muslims find wrong with Islam (and, for the record, US Christianity is no good advert for Christianity).

Wood speaks to the dishonesty of Mehdi Hasan who wants to play down the Islamic aspect of their motivation as much as possible, and to blame the western states for creating this monster. There is only one point here we can make, but it does Islam no good:

So, the west intervenes and takes out some undemocratic dictator, and leaves a vacuum in which this mess can arise? No, it’s not a vacuum. It’s a history of divisive Islamic disputes that have arisen from the mess, to now take hold. The inability to build a liberal democracy, or even establish a stable Islamic state, is not a good advert for Islam. If the Iranian theocracy that persecutes Sunnis is not a clue to Mehdi Hasan that Islam is not a good thing, then he us surely blinded by his biases.

Mehdi thinks we drown out the voices that reject ISIS? No we do not. Because Islam in places like Saudi and Iran does not give us an Islam that is any better. They give an Islam that is merely more controlled, less chaotic. You cannot build a state that is so self destructive. ISIS is a poor example of a state of any kind, to be sure; but that does not in itself make it un-Islamic. Again, we are not drowning out the beheadings in Saudi, but Mehdi Hasan is, for he rarely mentions it. If anything, it is other Muslims, the majority of Muslims, or the majority power systems of the Islamic world, that drown out the truly liberal Muslims in so many Islamic states.

Wood: ISIS is not only not an inevitable outcome of Islam, it isn’t even an inevitable outcome of a literalist Islam. Quite, but that doesn’t say much for Islam. Islam is an enabler of ISIS because its texts can so easily be turned to that purpose. Try that with Humanism – what Humanist texts would drive hordes of Humanists to start terror campaigns to form a Humanist State that persecutes all other beliefs?

Mehdi does not deny the numbers and the threat of ISIS. He agrees we should take them seriously. But the problem is that all this *Not Islamic* nonsense is the biggest denials destruction I’ve ever seen anywhere. This is the subject. Not what we can do about ISIS, not how we can prevent recruitment. In fact the Islamophobia mongering of Mehdi Hasan and others is preventing an honest reflection within Islam, within British Islam. Everyone is so busy defending Islam they are by default defending ISIS. Their Islamophobia rhetoric is fuelling the victimhood that is inciting yet more young Muslims to join up. Great job at recruiting for ISIS Mehdi.

Mehdi acknowledges at last (a bit late in the game) that it makes no sense to have the debate without any religious discussion – something he has been trying to achieve – but, he thinks it dangerous to say they are very Islamic, or even more Islamic. But, Mehdi, it’s far more dangerous to deny their Islamic influence and play this Islamophobia card.

Mehdi thinks talking about their Islamic status gives them some substantive claim to being Islamic. Well, it does, because they are. Again, not your Islam, Mehdi, but that’s just you playing your dishonest Takfir game, which is their game too.

Mehdi disputes the idea that ISIS take their religion more seriously than most Muslims. This is indeed a contentious point, but not totally devoid of merit. Many Muslims, like people of most religions, are varied in their devoutness and adherence to the requirements of the texts. There are two measures that need to be taken together: literalism and seriousness (or piety). Many non-serious non-literalist Muslims are just like believers in many other religions – they believe in their god, but basically just want to do the ordinary stuff of living. A serious (pious) but non-literalist Muslim may still be comfortable with democratic liberalism, in that they are personally pious but don’t enforce that on anyone else, because they don’t take the prescription to spread Islam so literally. But a seriously pious literalist of Islam is a dangerous beast.

Mehdi worries we might be throwing the majority of Muslims ‘under the bus’. This is nonsense. Islam is already a bad religion with all the states that implement it, and within the UK. If it were a reformed personal practice devoid of apostasy, blasphemy, and all punishments of any kind, then it wouldn’t be a problem. No body would care – and in fact people are so credulous there may well be far more converts than there now are.

Mehdi says that ISIS crave legitimacy and we shouldn’t be giving it to them. This is typical of cultures where superficial appearances mean more than genuine honesty. It’s the kind of culture where being pleasant to someone is far more important for making a good impression for the religion than being honest. We see this in the way in which so many Muslims interviewed will not give straight talking answers when they are asked about their support for various punishments prescribed by Islam. They have to maintain the facade of the religion of piece.

Mehdi doesn’t want us to denigrate the whole world of Islam. Sorry, Mehdi, it was already understood to be a vile religion as practised in all countries where it is a majority. ISIS is merely the appearance of the worst of Islam, that many non-Muslims worried about, but which many Muslims denied could ever come about. Here it is, our worst Islamic nightmare. Your worst Islamic nightmare. No wonder you are in denial.

On discussing the religious element Mehdi again insists ISIS is a fringe cult, with zero support within the Muslim world. That’s clearly false because these are not non-Muslims joining ISIS, but Muslims. And with any extremist fringe there are more supporters out there that have not yet or may never actually join them – but to say there is zero support is a down right lie. Duplicitous Mehdi Hasan strikes again.

Mehdi insist again that religion is not the motivator but the justification. Isn’t that to Islam’s discredit that it can be so used to justify these horrors? Yes, the revolutionary violence of other ideologies may have been used by previous generations. But this violent behemoth is justified very specifically by religious texts that in state contexts elsewhere have accusations of sorcery, stoning of adulterers, hanging of gays. It’s a barbaric religion, and Mehdi Hasan is only confirming that for us by his duplicitous denials.

We get back to the ‘learned scholars’ point. Wood: they are serious about the texts because they are from a literalist tradition. They are interested in the plain meaning of the words.

Well, of course, and there is plenty of religious barbarism in there to get their teeth into – find anything remotely like that in Humanism, which doesn’t even have the much ignored horrors of the Bible.

So, here we have both literalist scholars, and naive Islamic Dummies, all able to use these dangerous weapons of the Quran and the Hadith more lethally than all the school shooting sprees in the US.

And, the problem is that the scholars of Islam are making stuff up about interpretations of a fantasy. That can lead pretty much anywhere, because there are few restraints on scholarly interpretation of otherwise explicit texts. And yes, the humanism of most people stops them becoming ISIS-like, but in these more humane times it’s astonishing that Islamic states still subscribe to barbaric practices justified by Islam.

Wood concedes he’s not Muslim and it is not for him to say who is interpreting Islam correctly. Gleeful Mehdi is only too pleased to jump on this point; forgetting, or perhaps not realising, that even as a Muslim he is in no position either, because to many scholars his liberal Islam isn’t true Islam either – Mehdi Hasan is not a Muslim, according to some Muslims. Takfir. How about that.

Mehdi mentions Anjem Choudary – an attention seeking blowhard? Well, Choudary has the texts to back him up. Choudary is not a joke figure for many of the people that think the way he does. And CAGE and other Islamic organisations are implicated in his type of extremism. If these minorities were as small as Mehdi Hasan would have us believe there wouldn’t be a problem. And, Choudary’s links to Hizb ut-Tahrir isn’t a win for Mehdi, because that organisation has quite a following, and they only denounce ISIS as the true Caliphate because its not their Caliphate. More Takfir tosh.

Mehdi seems to be under the impression that ISIS is taken seriously because of their actual scholarly credentials. It isn’t. They are taken seriously in this regard precisely because they can so easily turn people to violence because they, like any Muslim, can aspire to being scholarly; and scholarly on barbaric punishments is so easy when the texts support it.

Mehdi again wants us not to take their word as ‘gospel’, because of their barbarity in beheading scholars, raping young girls. Those things are not a means to discredit their Islamic status if they can find justification in Islamic texts.

Mehdi answers the point that ISIS can quote the text by referring to David Koresh and his use of the Bible. Is this supposed to be a plus for Islam? Is this supposed to convince us that the Islamic texts cannot be used for such atrocities? Mehdi, you are a fool if you think this is making Islam sound any better. It is truly laughable that Mehdi uses David Koresh as an example of another religious cult easily finding justification in ancient barbaric texts. The joke is on you Mehdi. Koresh believed himself to be the final prophet of his cult. Where have we heard that before? Mohammed! Mehdi, keep digging that hole.

Mehdi: “No one is saying these people are not Muslims” – What? If they are Muslims in what way are they un-Islamic? This is stupid. “They are not authentically representative of Muslims.” Well, nor are Sunnis of Shias or Shias of Sunnis. What the hell, Mehdi, keep digging.

Mehdi tries the error of attribution? Oh, Mehdi, you total bullshitter. No one is denying all the political discontent, the identity crises, or whatever else you’d like to include. The point is that the barbaric texts of Islam are the justification, as you say. Isn’t that enough to condemn the Islamic texts? Of course that doesn’t condemn all Muslims because so many Muslims cherry pick (as you claim ISIS do) and interpret in their own way (as you claim ISIS do).

Don’t you get it Mehdi? Islam needs reform to put its nasty texts behind it. But it cannot because the Quran is supposed to be inerrant and the Hadith are used to justify so much more of the political and judicial aspects of Islam.

Mehdi brings up socio-economic factors? You have got to be kidding me. The wealthy Saudi families? The King of Jordan invoking Islamic wrath for the death of their pilot? The well educated British people being turned to join ISIS? The ignorant ‘scholars’ in Saudi and Iran that persecute people, Muslims and non-Muslim? The UAE courts that have criminalised rape victims, Muslim and non-Muslim alike? Get real Mehdi, there is nothing that Muslims in Britain are suffering that cannot be said of Jews and Hindus. All the recent anti-Islamic push-back has included frustrated right wing nationalist in Britain as a direct result of the vociferous supremacist nature of Islam, as sold in the UK by many Muslims, as well as Islam’s reputation as implemented in Islam dominated states.

Mehdi worries about us obsessing over the Islamic nature of ISIS? He’s the one obsessing over it, in his obsession with denying it. It is not being obsessive to point out that ISIS is using the Quran and Hadith to justify their actions when in fact they are. These are the facts that even Mehdi Hasan admits to. Get over it, Mehdi, accept that it’s right there in the texts and deal with it. Sadly, you cannot deal with it because these are your texts too.

Mehdi says we must understand ISIS. Well, yes. But denying their Islamic status, even if it’s not your Islamic status, isn’t helping in that endeavour. You are adding to the problem.

Mehdi points out that ISIS is also the product of the invasion of Iraq? Then that’s not saying a lot for the capacity of the religion of peace to come together and form a peaceful state in Iraq when the hated Americans left. Where was the unity of Islam? It was lost in the divisive corrosive nature that plagues all religions in conflict. The war in Iraq freed the chaos of religious sectarianism that was repressed under Saddam. That sectarianism is now free. That’s not a good advert for Islam, Mehdi.

Mehdi starts to make concessions toward the end, because he pretty much has to. He points out how Wood’s piece upset people – well, yes, because it contained more of the truth about the Islamic nature of ISIS than Mehdi Hasan and others have been happy with. It must be a very discomforting truth to take in, that your inerrant Quran can be so easily used to turn naive people to such grotesque behaviours. It’s right there in the texts!

It’s funny how we non-Muslims are told so often how we should listen to Muslims rather than make stuff up. Wood spoke to Muslims. But not the right type of Muslims according to his critics. Takfir talk again.

Mehdi wants to now avoid the notion that it’s a war within Islam. Well, many Muslims are being killed, by Muslims. Mehdi seems prepared to twist the argument any way he can to avoid pinning any of it on Islam.

Yes, we want to take into account all factors. But once all other factors have been removed, all social injustices sorted (as if that happens, to any group) we will still have Islamic theocracies behaving barbarically in the name of Islam. Iran was primarily an Islamic theocratic revolution. If you think that’s a good advert for Islam think again.

Sorry, Mehdi, but you are making me more and more convinced that Islam is by nature a dishonest religion.

Humanism: teaches only good stuff. If you kill in the name of humanism you will find no texts supporting your actions.

Islam: teaches good stuff and brutal barbaric stuff. Good, evil, or either, depending on mood or cartoons, Islam justifies it all. If you want to use it for good, you can. If you want to use it for evil, you can. Great.

And, this evening, as I write this, the Tunisia museum attack happened. If ISIS is doing one thing of use, it is, despite the denials, forcing Muslims to wake up to the nature of their own religion and its capacity to be turned to the barbaric ends that the texts prescribe. No amount of scholarly bullshit can hide the heinous nature of these inerrant texts.

UKIP Reasoning 101

I know, I’m a fool to myself for engaging with these doughnuts.

This is how it started, innocently enough, trying to find out if someone was blowing off or had a point to make, on Twitter (I know, I know, please don’t shout)


Then some kind soul I’d not interacted with before decided to point something out to me:


That first one? The US, will bomb an ally, for what, lowering our defence budget or something? Do you get the idea that Claire has conflated forcing regime change in in Iraq in the mistaken view that it would be for the better with no hitches, for wanting an ally to contribute to our collective defence needs?

Well, not quite. Claire not only doesn’t think it would actually happen (or at least I don’t think she thinks that), she is a bit cagey about the possibility of it happening, so cagey that “Who knows what would happen?” is good enough to have her thinking on the subject well covered.


Soak that little gem up for a moment. Claire suggests it worth speculating on how past performance might be an indicator to some “Who knows what would happen?” sort of future, potential, maybe one day, in one’s head, speculation. But then declares that, well actually past performance is not an indication of future results.

I’m now starting to suspect that this is one of those little pseudo-intelligence programs, that reads in your words, jumbles them around, and shoots them back at you in some effort to feign actual intelligence.

I was right. For at this point I decided to check Claire out. Yep, UKIP. And here’s the Twitter avatar, drawing your attention to the bottom half:


Oh, go on then, I’ll try some more:


So, I asked why an ally (in NATO) would attack us for not spending enough on defence, Claire brings up Special Relationship – old defunct US/UK thing, not NATO ally thing. So when I ask, “who mentioned S.R.”, I ask it rhetorically to mean why did she bring it up, because I didn’t, and it isn’t pertinent. I suggests she read her own avatar to see what it says about, well, bullshitting.

And, being the true blue democracy loving UKIP, she decides that taking the vote away is a good thing? Yes, I know she was being sarcastic (I hope), so I play the game and ask about her support for disenfranchisement.

Her response?


Yes, you did Claire. Full marks for knowing what you said. We still have to clear up if you know what you mean, or know anything much at all.

And …


Well, Claire doesn’t know what I’m talking about, in a rather simple exchange, where I answer her directly. What are the chances she knows what she is talking about. I try to explain:


But I get the feeling I’m not getting through:


Claire, you do realise that if morons were prevented from voting, you’d be near the top of the list for disenfranchisement?

UKIP: incontrovertible evidence that the fucking Zombie Apocalypse is well and truly under way.

Abstract Things Don’t Exist

This came out of a discussion with Wyrd Smythe in a comment section on Students showing up at college understanding the fact value distinction is a good thing.

It started as a discussion about morals, but this aside developed in the conversation.

Wyrd said this,

What about the fact that we nowhere find a perfect circle, but we do find imperfect circles that lead us to the idea of a perfect circle? In general, nowhere do we find actual mathematics in nature, but we find everywhere facts that lead to mathematics?

And my response is here, edited for better context here:

We never see perfect abstract things: points, circles, cubes, …, ‘chair’. Even when we do the math we only work with approximations – significant figures, or symbols that represent some fictitious notion. Models with many terms even drop less significant terms as intentional approximations, in order to simplify the models, and then, wow, some complex system nearly fits reality.

The Platonic Forms ideas is all wrong. Material objects are not crude examples of pure platonic forms. Instead, idealised models are approximations to real forms. They are simplistic models, compared to an accurate model of any particular real object. And since all real objects are unique (I think) the ideal models are like statistical models – analogous to the ideal gas laws, for example.

I think the platonic perception comes from the human brain history: we awake and become self aware, and aware of our thinking, but at that time we know nothing of evolution. We come ready made. The material world seems messy, and the mental world seems cleaner, more perfect. And we can imagine things we don’t see. So the mental world is an indication of a more perfect reality. The primacy of the mental over the physical is established, so the imagined pure things must be real. But that turns out to be fiction, dreams, imagination, idealistic approximations. We are no more than evolved complex chemistry, sloppy biology, that survives.

Why should we expect the universe to be pure or perfect in any way? Why should we think there’s any sort of reality to perfect models?

Wyrd responded here. And what follows addresses his view as presented, but expands on mine.

“In fact, any real world circle is the approximation of the abstraction of a circle.”

I disagree because abstract circles don’t exist except as conceptual patterns in minds, as sometimes expressed by mathematical correlates. And, since minds are really a brain’s eye view of itself, and brains at various levels are quantised, as synapses, action potentials, molecules, atoms, then there is nowhere where an abstract circle exists. The mathematics of circles happen to fit well with the imaginary abstract circles, and not quite so well with real objects that we call circles.

At the very best, one could say that abstract circles and real circles are relative approximates to each other.

…it’s very difficult to imagine an intelligent race failing to discover a theory of circles. A circle is easy to define.

Yes, I can imagine aliens would figure out a theory of circles, and symbolism aside I would guess it would be the same as ours, or in some form such that the two theories could be derived from each other, perhaps starting with different axioms. But, how would aliens come to a theory of circles if they didn’t actually have any circles to play with. Which came first, pi.r^2, or wheels? Or was it logs?

How do brains come to any knowledge without experience. We have what appear to innate capacities: to distinguish between horizontal and vertical lines to different degrees, to recognise certain parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, and acquired experiences passed on through inheritance. In what sense do abstractions exist if a brain hasn’t had some experience that triggers some pattern. The abstractions we think we know about always occur first in our brains. Some human came up with the notion of a perfect circle, but in his brain at that time his ‘perfect circle’ was made of patterns in his digital brain stuff. There is no perfect circle, only the approximate notion of one in the imagination.

One might wonder about abstractions that are never experienced in actuality – flights of fancy, myths, original art work. The representation, as patterns in the brain, is the real world ‘thing’ that represents the abstraction. That it is a pattern corresponding to nothing in the real world is irrelevant. The abstraction doesn’t exist still; it’s the brain pattern that exists.

Collecting a mass of data and calculating the mean is the act of producing an abstract measure that is useful as an approximate representation for the bulk of the data. That same mean value could be the mean of countless slightly different distributions of data from real world things.

Any abstract circle is an approximate representation of many real circles that do or could exist or could be created. It’s a representation of real things. That a mathematical theory works well is an interesting fact. But that in itself does not prove or demonstrate that real things are approximations to abstractions rather than the other way round.

My reason for preferring to use this alternative perspective is that it moves us away from the mistaken reification of abstract ideas as pure or transcendent, which all too often causes us to take these abstractions as reality.

“The natural abstraction necessary to enable counting…”

I rather think it’s the case that dealing with objects came first, as an empirical experience, before developing counting. Other animals seem to get on quite well without such abstractions, and surely without abstract maths.

Animal brains that can detect moving objects, that can tell when they are outnumbered or outsized, are processing sense data that does not need an abstraction theory. It can get by with messy brain approximations to the messy external patterns it’s observing. I’m guessing, but I don’t think a lion sits quietly contemplating how better to get the next prey animal, musing on the theory of predator-prey motion dynamics, because today’s prey managed to escape it. And creatures with no nervous system don’t do any brain stuff at all – they are essentially constrained phsyics and chemistry automata. The ‘mathematical’ nature of the universe is something we put on it. The universe conforms to patterns because of the nature of reality. Aliens will discover circles when they look up at the sky and see a sun or a moon. At a distance they will look like perfect circles, because the alien eyes cannot see the real edges formed by the horizons.

Having said that, I’m not dismissive of all abstract ideas. But the ones I see having potential as an aspect of reality are quite different. Of course there’s Wheeler’s ‘it from bit’ and Luciano Floridi’s ‘information’, which abstracts away the whole of reality – but they are reductionist perspectives on our reality, not separate abstractions to which reality conforms. There are no circles in those abstract perspectives as far as I’m aware – there’s not much of anything.

But proper calculation requires an analog computer with a complexity order equal to the real world. In fact, the real world is that analog computer; it calculates the three-body problem and weather predictions with ease.

Well, it could be digital – the old atomist argument. But even so, circles are constructs in that reality, not a part of it. The reduction of reality to its constituents does not necessarily show us any circles down there, so the maths of circles is still just models of how that lower scale reality builds up into real atoms, and real messy circles made of lumpy atoms.

Note that I’m not claiming Plato’s realm of perfect forms has ontological reality, but I think it has an almost undeniable epistemological reality. If you grant that any intelligent species will discover mathematics and geometry, it almost has to have it.

Ghosts have epistemological reality. We can ‘know’ about them conceptually. But they are not real, as far as I know. This is partly why I’m not convinced by Platonic forms and other neat abstractions like circles. We can actually have imaginative abstractions of messy things too. And abstractions that don’t exist. That seems a clue to me that all abstractions do not exist, and that they are creations in the mind, and are sometimes approximate representations of reality.

And, you can also say that any species that deals with the real world and real objects will invent abstract approximations to make life easier.

If I design a building, but don’t build it, is the building real? Isn’t there some form of reality to the design?”

Yes. It consists first as messy vague patterns in neurons. It’s committed to paper by the messy accumulation of real pencil lines (or as quantised bits, bytes, words, numeric finite representations in a computer). Nowhere ever does it exist as what we abstract as ‘the design’. We pretend it does. Using the term, “The design”, is no more than using a mathematical symbol to represent a complex expression. Brains that review the messy pencil lines (or printout, or digital screen display, or ‘analogue’ electron display) only ever hold vague mental representations. We juggle parts of the design around, focus on bits, even use language to express numbers in the design. Photocopy the ‘design drawing’ and the ink patterns will differ; copy the data to a different computer and it will be represented still by quantised bits.

The abstraction of the design is no more real than gods.

In fact ‘information’ is an interesting ‘thing’. It doesn’t exist. So, how is information ‘transferred’? I’ll finish with a couple of examples of that.

It’s an abstract approximation to reality. It’s a representation of often quite distinct things that have some correspondence.

Example: Computer Information

When I download an ‘app’ onto my phone, there is nothing on the server computer that arrives on my phone. Nothing. The server computer sends electrons in patterns around its circuits, reading bits from memory. They are used to induce changes in a transmission port that takes electrons from a power source. The pattern of the transmitted electrons down the wire has some correspondence with the patter of electrons representing the app in the server’s memory. The app in the server’s memory doesn’t go anywhere – well, depending on the type of memory: dynamic memory is refreshed, so that the bit pattern representing the app is maintained. In reality that pattern may get shifted around, destroyed and recreated – all depending on the state of the system and its management of data.

In the meantime electrons are going down wires, inducing transformations in yet other wires by yet more transducers. There may be a satellite hop involved eventually, or maybe a microwave link to your local phone cell. None of the original atoms or electrons or energy are present by this time. Power supplies along the way are providing energy, electrons, heat, to make local patterns that correspond to the incoming patterns, and in turn cause outgoing patterns to match.

Eventually electromagnetic signals induce electron flow in my phone’s antenna, circuits decode the data, patterns are created in my phone that match the app pattern on the distant server.

And there is nothing on my phone that was on the server. Nothing. My phone merely contains a pattern of bits that correspond to a pattern of bits somewhere else.

Think about the energy. All the energy used in my phone comes from its battery. The same for millions of phones that have ‘downloaded’ the app. There is not some drain like a tap on a barrel when an app is downloaded. There is a drain, or course, but very little of the energy goes out through the wires in the server network – we’re talking volts and milliamps, and nearly all that comes from a power feed into the output chips, not from the memory bits where the app is stored as a bit pattern. The energy used by a server mostly leaves as heat, not as information carrying electrons.

And that term, ‘download’. We’re used to the term ‘download’, but it’s a metaphor. In reality patterns are copied. In the transmission process the ‘information’ (that is never an ontological ‘thing’) goes through many encodings and decodings. Even the sequence of bits can be out of order because the ‘information’ is transferred in packets, which may be lost and resent.

Example: Shouting across a field.

You and a friend stand at opposite ends of a field. You read aloud a list of common names, and he has to remember them and shout them back, in order. None of the matter, none of the energy, that left your mouth, reaches his ears. Sequences of colliding air atoms absorb and retransmit energy, dissipating some as heat, passing some on as motion in the next atom. Much of that energy is transmitted radially, so what reaches your friend’s ear is a tiny representation of the sound that left your mouth – roughly the inverse square proportion. His ear picks it up. The energy in the air particles in your friends ear, vibrating mechanisms in his inner ear, none of it ends up in his auditory cortex.

We say you have given him some information. It’s meaningful information to him because when he hears the names you shout out, his brain has become accustomed to the neuron signals, the patterns of firings, entering his auditory cortex. Without that language context all that’s going on in his brain is some neurons are firing, triggering ready made patterns, doing what brains do when they recognise stuff.

No matter or energy that left your brain as you read and spoke these names, none of it entered his head.

Information is an abstract term we use to describe that process. We think of information as a ‘thing’ because as physical creatures that have ancestors that didn’t have brains. When they experienced something it was all physical, chemical, biological, local. It still is; but eyes, ears, voices, they allow us to make remote physical connections. We don’t need to ‘transfer’ ‘information’ directly, through touch, we do it indirectly, through the touch of air movement in our ears, or the arrival of photons in our eyes.

Information does not exist in its own right. It has no ontological existence. The term, ‘information’, is what we use to represent the corresponding patterns that exist in our two heads when we communicate.

Is Death Bad For You? No, Don’t Laugh. This Is Philosophy.

Jeez. Another philosopher making hard work of something simple. How Should We Feel About Death? – Ben Bradley, Syracuse University, Published online: 24 Feb 2015

What are the rational constraints on our desires and emotions concerning death? We might rephrase the question in terms of appropriateness or fittingness: what attitudes or emotions is it appropriate or fitting to have concerning death?

The first question was a reasonable one, while the rephrasing is philosophically futile. The term ‘fittingness’ is one of these profundities that is dragged out when emotionally charged woo is being concocted out of a straight forward question.

A rational attitude:

1 – Try to be blasé about the fact of death. Once it happens you are not going to care very much about it at all. This worry about the value of life not yet lived and not to be lived is childish. It’s not wanting to miss out on something you cannot have. It’s the hankering of what is actually going to be of no concern to you. It is at best an unsatisfied curiosity.

2 – My attitude now is that I would like to be around to see some amazing things happen that I will not get to see. Super duper AI. Space flight for leisure. Brain upgrades. Whatever. If extended healthy life spans were possible I’d consider it. But if they are not, then so be it. I don’t here people that died in 1900 lamenting their failure to see the new millennium. Because they are dead.

3 – Fear of dying is rational. Illness, pain, suffering – they are not nice. I’m slightly apprehensive going to the dentist – it’s not as relaxing as having tea and biscuits in my conservatory. So fearing the unknown possibility of painful ill health is natural. When you’ve seen aged grand parents and parents suffering it puts you off that bit; but reasonable good health is just fine, if not always convenient. It might be frustrating to become dependent too. There is a balance, and a personal decision about where that balance lies, but there is one sure enough, between soldiering on and calling it quits. Dying isn’t the worse thing that can happen to you. Actually being dead is as neutrally good or bad as having never been born.

Thus the question might be rephrased as: how should we feel about being permanently annihilated? For those who are certain there is an afterlife, this question will be merely of theoretical interest, but those who think annihilation is even a possibility should be interested in this question.

Are you fucking kidding me? Philosophers are fucking hopeless sometimes. They can come over all grandiosely sceptical and inquisitive about shit like this, and then have a hissy fit if you suggest that we don’t have free will; or that Mary either learned something new, not having the full knowledge of red, or she already invoked a redness experience internally from the full knowledge she was supposed to have.

Look, how long you are dead when you are dead might be of the slightest interest if there was the prospect of making you undead later. If the Jesus resurrection trick became science and an evil Earth Emperor resurrected people as slaves, then it might be of interest. But, if I’m ashes I’m not me. If I’m a brain recording revived in a copy body, then that isn’t me. That poor sap has something to worry about, but not me.

If anything the very notion of being interested in what happens after death should arouse a far more pertinent question: since my physical structure changes over time there’s a sense in which the me now will not be the crumpled old man I will become with a catheter and a withered brain, so why should I worry about the future. Yes, what becomes me will suffer. But I’m not suffering now. So, those teens and twenty-somethings that feel immortal, that’s a pretty smart attitude.

Does Christopher Hitchens regret all the drinking and smoking that pretty surely brought on his early death? Well, not any more he doesn’t, if he ever did.

Of course some times we can’t help but anticipate the future. We have pension plans, for fuck’s sake. But don’t let it get out of hand. Planning for funeral costs is a curtsey to your bereaved family – unless you can convince them to hand over your body to someone that will pay for it. Tell them to get rid by the most economically convenient method, I don’t know, e-bay? And if they really feel the need, have a party at their house. Planning for your possible long life isn’t an irrational idea. Worrying about being dead is pointless.

I’m into remembering people and events. Poppies, the Cenotaph, … These are good for us as a society to help us remember events in the hope we learn. There a sort of folk education. The paying of respects is like an act of duty, but to us and future generations, by thinking about what someone gave in order to make our lives better. This is a useful process, I think, for the living. But it does nothing for the dead.

The same with personal bereavement: it’s something for the living and their relationship with the deceased, a reminder of what we value, a time to reflect on good times, which is something we seem to enjoy doing. Incidentally, my father has a small plaque at a cemetery, but I don’t visit it. I still think about my father. Now, he was ill for most of my young life and died when I was 18. He suffered shell shock at Dunkirk and malaria in Burma in WWII, so he’s a hero to me. I have his medals. I’m feeling emotional now. But that plaque representing him means nothing to me. His ashes were scattered in the garden of remembrance, but that means nothing either. But this inadequate memory I have of the man does mean something to me. Death of loved ones is significant for us. But quite uninteresting to the dead.

A good way to start thinking about how we should feel about death would be by figuring out whether death is bad for us and why.

I tell you, I fucking despair at the bollocks philosophers come up with. Too much time on their hands. Philosophy, an awfully slow death.

Most philosophers who have thought about these questions have said that death is generally bad for us, and that what makes it bad is that it deprives the victim of more of a good life.

Oh come on! You’re having me on. This is a parody of philosophy, surely. Please tell me it is so that I can laugh with you rather than at you.

The death of Socrates by poisoning was a bit of a loss for his Greek society deprived of his witty way with questioning. But was it that much of a loss to him? Another ten or twenty years, suffering in old age and dying a possibly even more gruesome death? What about the few thousand years since then, what about all that time since he died? What about all he’s going to miss in that great year of 2525, the one we’ll all miss too? Are you regretting not being alive in 2525? Why not, if being dead is such a problem? Well, Socrates would prefer death to the loss of his freedom to philosophise and share his ideas. So death can’t be that bad. And it was unlikely he’d reach 2525, so, good call.

Don’t misunderstand me. I and not a pessimist giving up on life. I’m a biological survival machine, just like you. If anything I’ll probably have an irrational need to cling to life if I’m approaching death rapidly and unexpectedly – the biology of survival is stubborn. But I hold no irrational mystical regard for life. I value the living for being alive as human social survival machines – I’m a humanist, wanting the best for myself and fellow humans. While we’re alive let’s enjoy it.

But being dead is, well, uninteresting, not least to the dead.

We might go on to say something about degrees: how bad death is depends on how much of a good life it deprives its victim from having. Deprivation is a counterfactual notion: what death deprives a victim from having is what would have happened to the victim if she hadn’t died. Given optimistic assumptions about the quality of human life, death is therefore normally bad for people, and it is often one of the worst things that can happen to someone. On this picture death is instrumentally bad for a person, not intrinsically bad for her. Death is bad for someone because of its results, not in itself.

You know when you come across a new word that sounds really good and you figure you could use it without seeming too much of a twat? That’s what I feel philosophers go through in graduate school when the discover ‘counterfactual’. I think they think it’s such a cool name for a cool idea that they just can’t stop finding excuses to use it. It just means talking about stuff that didn’t or won’t happen, but might have happened or even couldn’t possibly of happened but it’s cool to think about anyway. What sort of world would we be living in now had Germany and Japan had won in WWII? Lol. Where do we start dispelling the futility of such a question.

But yes, deprivation in death is a counterfactual, a pretty fucking useless one. Deprivation in life, now that’s more interesting because deprivation could be ongoing, and relieving it might actually make a portion of a lived life better. But the counterfactual to death is fucking useless, for the dead.

Counterfactual reasoning about one’s lived life, when someone close dies, is a fair human emotional process to go through.

It’s about sorting your brain out, from the programmed path it had laid down for you and your loved one, to the new path that you must travel alone. It’s about coping with drastic change. Old couples that have had a long life may grieve, and sometimes it can be so bad that the one left behind soon follows. Lots of memories.

But I cannot imagine how it is for a parent that loses a child, or a teen. Recent news of another young person lost to murder, and her distraught parents on the news. Fucking awful. And the girl may have suffered. Fucking awful. Sometimes the phrase, “they are at peace now,” can be a real consolation when the counterfactual turns from dreadful possibility to actual fact – and the phrase has meaning for both the religious, who imagine them going on to some fairy land life, and for us atheists that know simply that the end of suffering will have to be sufficient.

Once a person is dead, counterfactuals on death are nothing more than cognitive exercises for the living.

The deprivation account seems like it must be basically right. Some have argued for some bells and whistles to be added. For example, Jeff McMahan claims that the badness of death should be discounted based on, among other things, (1) the extent of the psychological relations that would have held between the person at the time of death and the person at the times she would have been getting the good things death deprived her from getting (the ‘time-relative interests account’), and (2) the extent to which the victim previously enjoyed a good life (McMahan 2002).

You couldn’t make this shit up outside a bizarre fantasy, unless you’re a theologian or a philosopher.

How should we feel about death? This seems pretty simple too. According to ‘fitting attitude’ analyses of value, to be good just is, roughly, to be the fitting object of pro-attitudes, and to be bad just is to be the fitting object of con-attitudes. Given the deprivation account of the badness of death along with our optimistic assumption, it follows that death is, typically, a fitting object of a negative attitude. Of course, fitting attitude analyses of value are controversial. I don’t wish to defend such analyses. But even if value cannot be analyzed in this way, a weaker claim may still be true: necessarily, if something is bad then it is the fitting object of a negative attitude. Given the deprivation account and the optimistic assumption, this entails that death merits a negative attitude.

This is such bullshit. But then a ray of hope:

There is one way in which a negative attitude towards death is not warranted. If we want to know how we should feel about death in itself, it seems that we should be indifferent towards it. After all, nothing good or b d will happen to you while you are dead. There should be a difference between our intrinsic attitudes towards death and our overall attitudes. The attitudes that are intrinsically fitting to have towards death are the attitudes it would be appropriate to have towards death considered by itself, independent of what else death brings about or prevents.

Philosophy career advice: Think of some easy to answer question that has a touch of potential profundity about it. Figure out the simple most obvious answer. Spend more time conjuring up a paper that starts with some straw men to tear down. Put the simple stuff in there as your alternative way at looking at things in order to seem relatively smart. Publish the paper, Then sit back, smoke a pipe, have a beer, or a sherry, and contemplate your next great paper in a quizzical manner most befitting your status at your university.

But things are not so simple. One complication is that there are a lot of negative attitudes one might have about death: fear, dread, worry, hatred, and many more.

Look, if you are suffering a painful or otherwise miserably slow death, and the right to die isn’t recognised as a right where you live, then you have my sympathy for what you are going through, and these worries are understandable.

But if you’re healthy with some time to go, and you are still that worried about death, then you most likely have some psychological issues that are troubling you in life that are more significant than your distant death. I would advise that, if at all you can, you pull your finger out and stop being a narcissistic ass.

On the other hand, if you are genuinely suffering from depression and other bad shit, then, again, my sympathies, but get help and do put death on the back burner. Things might get better.

Anyway, on we go. At last, some thought experiments to get our teeth into. There’s nothing like a philosopher’s thought experiments for inventing unrealistic scenarios. But at least this one is pretty straight forward.

Suppose a young and healthy man named Jim steps in front of a bus and is severely injured; he quickly succumbs to his injuries. Is Jim’s death bad for him? It seems plausible to say that it is. But it might also seem plausible to say that if Jim hadn’t died when he did, he would have instead experienced a great amount of pain and suffering from being hit by the bus. So each of the following might be an appropriate account of what happened:

  • Jim got hit by a bus and died. What a shame! He was so young. If Jim hadn’t died, he would have lived a long and healthy life.
  • Given that Jim got hit by a bus, it’s probably better that he died. If he hadn’t, he would have been severely injured instead. He wouldn’t have wanted to live that way.

This is the kind of whimsical stuff you talk about in the pub after a funeral. It’s not a serious philosophical challenge. Note that this isn’t even a completely useful list. Add Had Jim not been hit by a bus he wouldn’t have been hit by a bus and would have been fine.. Or is that too clear for philosophy?

Attributions of instrumental value are fundamentally contrastive. What is bad for Jim is dying rather than not being hit by the bus at all. What is not bad for Jim is dying rather than being severely injured. There is no absolute fact of the matter about whether Jim’s death, full stop, is bad for him, even though context can make an assertion of ‘Jim’s death was bad for him’ true. Context makes a particular contrast, or class of contrasts, salient.

Well, so a philosopher can figure out that suffering might be worse than death, but living a healthy life is better than death. And I presume living a healthy life is better than suffering. I feel an Ig Nobel prize is due for the thought research that provoked this thought experiment and brought us this ground breaking insight.

John Broome puts the point in this way: ‘All the significant facts have been fully stated once we have said what dying at eighty-two is better than and what it is worse than. There is no further significant question whether or not dying at eighty-two is an absolutely bad thing.’ (Broome 1999, 171) Broome may be overstating things here a bit, because it is also significant what would have happened had one not died at eighty-two.

No! He’s still understating the insignificance of death to the dead. And no, it is not “significant what would have happened had one not died at eighty-two”. It has no significance at all once you are dead. The only pre-death significance it has, to that person, is a measure of how fucked up he is, worrying about what he’ll miss after death.

Given that the badness of death is contrastive…

No! Dying is contrastive, with regard to the contrasting deaths that might occur, including, prior to the death, the predictability of the death. There is no useful contrast to the state of being dead.

Do you suffer inordinate anguish over the counterfactual life you didn’t have before you were born? How ‘contrastive’ are you going to be with that? Oh shit! I might not have been born! Fuck, what should I do?

Well, actually I do regret missing out on things from before I was born. Occasionally I have had these moments of false nostalgia. I grew up in an austere part of Britain, and I saw teenage kids in American movies of the fifties, with cars, and diners serving super ice creams. But these are just little moments of irrationality poking its nose in, and they are easily dismissed. A have a nostalgia for what I foolishly imagine to be the glamorous life of a WWII Spitfire pilot, but then I think I could be mistaken about how glamorous it actually was.

But aside from these momentary flights of fancy, along with wanting to be Superman, or wishing I had a pair of those X-Ray Specs from the back of comics, I really don’t think that in moments of rational lucidity one needs to think much about being dead at all. Dreams, lucid or not, can invoke fears that in waking lucidity seem stupid, but dreaming is an odd psychological state anyway, unencumbered by empirical sense correction.

Compared to being dead or the state of being dead, something like the prospective approach to death, going to war and anticipating dangers that could lead to your imminent death, is a perfectly natural survival process. Approaching death, with potential suffering, and being dead, are quite different things, with the former understandably arousing survival fears, but the latter being of no concern whatsoever, except to those left behind.

I do remember, when my kids were young and dependent, I went through the natural parental angst of worrying about how they will go on if my wife and I died while they were young. That unfortunate scenario becomes reality to many children, and I wouldn’t have wished it upon mine. But even so, once I’m dead I also stop worrying about the living. So even my living concern for my kids in the event of my death is only about their continued living, not about my being dead.

So, again, the only living concerns one might have about one’s own death is how it is approached and how you will provide for your dependants. And once dead these matters cease to be worries. A young dying parent could also understandably have regrets about missing their children grow up. But again, once dead that ceases to be a concern. When you are dead any worries you had will be gone, for you, and any counterfactual futures about seeing your children grow are gone for you.

There is simply nothing to concern you about actually being dead. Stop worrying about not existing.

Moving on.

When is a preference rational? This seems easy: it is rational to prefer P to Q iff P is better than Q.

Sounds easy when you put it like that.

Thus Jim ought to greatly prefer living a long healthy life to dying, and he should not prefer living a short life full of suffering to dying (depending on how much pain there is, maybe he should prefer death to continued life in such a state).

The ‘full of suffering’ is not about one’s concern for death but about one’s concern for living, in a state of suffering. Preferring P to Q is now about preferring non-suffering (in death or a healthy life) to suffering, and is no longer about preferring life to non-life, death.

Thinking of it in terms of the counterfactual of what life you missed prior to your birth and becomes clear that preferring life to non-life is quite fucking pointless, and the only reason you are falling for the death problem is that it is made murky by the route to death and the possibility of suffering.

You have changed the point of interest from preferring P (being alive and healthy) to Q (being dead), a meaningless comparison; so that now you are comparing P (death) to Q (suffering life) or P (healthy life) to Q (suffering life). This whole paper is just confused in what it is about.

So here is a simple part of the story about correct attitudes towards death: it is correct to prefer a particular future to death iff you would be better off given that future than if you died.

Why? If you are ruling out a suffering life, so the comparison is life and non-life, then there is no sense in which ‘better off’ has any useful meaning in this context.

When you are dead, nothing matters.

While you are alive and healthy, being alive is good, generally – since our survival nature makes us enjoy being alive, and it is probably contrary to evolutionary selection to make being unhappy enough to top yourself the natural state. Marvin the Paranoid Android is not how we are naturally.

But to say one state is better than the other, when in each state there is no access to the other state, is a totally fucked up philosophical notion. It’s irrational!

In the next section the paper moves on to preference and desire, and continues to get it wrong.

Suppose S, incorrectly, prefers death to a good life. It follows that S desires to die on the condition that S lives a worthwhile life or S dies; so that desire must also be incorrect, since it is identical to an incorrect preference.

This presumption that preferring death to a good life is incorrect is incorrect in itself. It is a neutral comparison deserving no preference. It makes no sense to prefer either.

If I prefer life and decide to live on, I live on not knowing death until later. If I prefer death and can arrange a nice death then I cease to know life.

Of course we can play the counterfactual game again. So, you might say, “Oh, but once your dead there’s no going back, you’ve burnt your bridges!” Well, if you think that then the point still hasn’t sunk in. When you’re dead you don’t give a fuck about burnt bridges! It doesn’t matter.

I guess there will be a lot of loose thinking inspired angst around this idea in some quarters. Maybe influenced by our natural instinct to survive, made all the more confusing by some inspired respect for life itself and a token of religiously inspired guilt at taking one’s own life. But really, if for some reason I manage to overcome the my survival instinct, then what would be the problem with me deciding to top myself? I’ve never heard a rational answer to this that wasn’t loaded with emotional BS. We can give evolutionary biological reasons for why we tend not to do this, but no other reason why we should not.

You’ll note, incidentally, that this term ‘correct’ is loaded with moral indignation about the right to choose one’s own life and death. It’s a very religious theme, with a prescription for life and a proscription for death – the religious love to control.

More confusion arises in section 5, about beliefs.

For example, suppose I do not want to go to the dentist because of the painfulness of having my teeth cleaned. But you convince me that I would be better off in the long run if I go. So I truly believe that I would be better off if I went. Still, I fail to form a desire to go. My failing to desire to go to the dentist is incorrect because it is insufficiently sensitive to my true beliefs.

This is irrelevant, because this scenario compares life with or without going to the dentist. It’s a poor analogy. In this case the failing to go to the dentist is ‘incorrect’ only if you already have a dichotomy where going is correct and not going is incorrect, as some indication of the measure of the outcomes. You have decided that not having tooth ache is good, and having it is bad, and going to the dentist will reduce the risk of the bad and increase the chance of the good, therefore the ‘correct’ path to achieving good is to go to the dentist, and the ‘incorrect’ path is not to go. The comparative states are meaningful here. If you don’t go and end up with tooth ache you can legitimately regret not going, and if you go, find some tooth decay and have it fixed, you can be pleased you did not choose not to go. Ahead of time in either case you can anticipate contemplating the counterfactual and regret not taking that other route, or be glad you did not.

But dead and not-dead are mutually exclusive comparative states. When alive you can’t know anything about what it’s like to be dead. While alive it’s pointless being glad you’re not dead, because at that time you are not dead. Right now, how many other counterfactuals should I be glad of or regret? Should I be happy I’m not a tree? How does this work? What is the point of being happy I’m not dead?

And when I’m dead I won’t be in state to regret not being alive – unlike being alive with tooth ache when I can regret not having gone to the dentist.

In section 7 we get to the conclusions.

Here, then, are some ways that you might have incorrect attitudes towards death. You might fail to be intrinsically indifferent towards death — you might have a positive or negative attitude towards nonexistence considered in itself.

That pair of statements says it all. But it needed a full paper to say it? Sadly, there’s more:

You might fail to have a pro-attitude towards the intrinsic goods of which death deprives you, or a con-attitude towards the intrinsic evils. You might prefer to die rather than live, even though living would be better for you than dying; …


… or you might prefer to live rather than die even though dying would be better for you.

This actually makes sense – you might indeed prefer that, but it is your prerogative to live in such state if you wish.

But what is important and is missed here is the right to die if dying would relieve certain suffering. But also missed, and not supported by the right to die movement, is the question: who the fuck denies me the right to die even if I simply choose to with no suffering persuading me? The reason this doesn’t crop up so much is because our survival instinct usually prevents us taking it seriously.

And we have other aspects to our humanist lives that drive us not to allow someone to be coerced into wanting a death they might otherwise not want: torturing people until they plead for death, influencing vulnerable people to persuade them that they have some duty to die … we have desires that make us guard against that, because that amounts to murder, even if the victim takes their own life in the end.

But, philosophically, since the philosopher put counterfactuals are on the table, what about the counterfactual where there is no coercion and I simply decide that I’m bored with life and and want to top myself. All the stops are pulled out to prevent me. I could get away with it, by some messy suicide.

Not to worry, this is only a counterfactual thought experiment. But the philosophical point stands. Why is it wrong, incorrect, bad, to die?

You might have an attitude towards death that is regulated by an incorrect preference or belief. Finally, you might fail to have an attitude towards death that you should have, given your correct preferences and beliefs. Perhaps there are other ways to have an incorrect attitude too.

Lots of presuppositions about what’s correct or what should be preferred, when they are irrelevant.

There is another case that is puzzling, and might challenge the entire framework within which I am working. Consider the person who feels existential terror or angst at the prospect of death. When considering that at some future time, she will no longer exist, she is filled with terror. She does not obsess about it, but contemplating a future in which she is simply not there is terrifying to her.

This isn’t puzzling at all. I’m surprised that a philosopher can’t figure this out. She simply has a problem that’s interfering with her living. As with any other phobia it’s disconcerting to be trapped by the irrational fear. That’s a psychological problem to be fixed, if she deems she needs it fixing. Do other mammals have existential angst when no imminent danger is present? Contemplating distant unpredictable death seems to be a glitch we acquired with an imaginary brain; except of course it does come along with anticipating danger and threats to survival, so maybe it’s a benefit that has simply got out of control.

Perhaps she’s read too much philosophy. Perhaps she should become a philosopher.

It is far from clear either that a finite existence cannot be meaningful, or that there is any particular link between terror and meaninglessness.

What? Look, if people can’t find enough meaning in their finite natural lives, they seem quite able to invent imaginary after lives to take up the slack. Is this need for meaning another glitch? Again, many mammals seem not to need it. Come to that, I know a few humans that are pretty fulfilled by a pint, some cigs and the occasional screw.

There needn’t be a link between terror and meaninglessness. Many people are able to scare themselves into thinking there is, so they search out religions and other mysticisms, which of course are in the business of promoting that theme.

Fuck it! Chill out. I am here by the coincidence of evolution, and that my parents fucked and this sperm ovum came together, and I grew up and had the education I did, and went on to think about this stuff and decided being dead isn’t a big deal, even though dying might be. The contingency and meaninglessness of our existence is liberating. I am here and this is it. When I’m gone that’s that. It’s really easy, if you just let go of this neediness for something else, something it appears you’ll never have. So much human energy seems to go into creating fake solutions to an imaginary problem, and forcing others to be bound by these existential terrors. Foolish. Wasting a very finite life, by spending a good deal of that finite life worrying about the end of that finite life.

Death, for most of us, is some uncertain but distant way off.

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small, and the fears that once controlled us don’t need to get to us at all. It’s time to see what we can do to test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for us we’re free!

… thanks to a little friend of mine for bringing this much brighter philosophical perspective to my attention …

cue Elsa … Let it go, let it go.

Seriously Flawed Religious Apologetics

Samuel James over at Patheos has put up some apologetics that are supposed to help the non-science Christian. Unfortunately they re really poor at giving Christians good answers to critiques of their beliefs.

Lack of scientific knowledge can leave Christians feeling vulnerable when talking to unbelieving friends about why faith is superior to skepticism.

4 Responses a Non-Scientist Christian Can Give to Science-Based Atheism

These will not help any Christian make his or her case, but will only lead to ridicule. Sorry, but there’s enough of this very same stuff around as it is. You’re still vulnerable, because these points are pointless.

1) We cannot know from science if science itself is the best source of knowledge.

This is not quite right. I know what you mean. There is no way you can prove absolutely from science that science is absolutely the best source of knowledge. Unfortunately you are falling for that old philosophical problem of assuming that it is necessary to prove something in the logical absolute true/false sense. It isn’t.

We’ll come up against this again in your other points, so let’s settle it here.

Humans cannot prove things absolutely. All proofs, including deductive arguments used by characters like William Lane Craig, rely on premises that themselves need proving, and so on back through argument after argument. A particular argument may be valid, but if you cannot prove its premises the proof isn’t sound, and if it’s not a sound argument it isn’t providing assured proof of its conclusion.

In the end, with any argument chain, proving premises back through arguments intended to prove premises, we come up against premises we cannot prove. They might be guesses, hypotheses, hunches, results of experience – whatever they are they are not proved.

So, what we can only ever acquire knowledge by probing and observing the world, coming up with ideas, hypotheses, theories, reasoned explanations, intuitive ideas, imaginative prompts, and testing those ideas against the world. This is empiricism at work. And it’s all about the reliability of results, not about proof in that logical deductive sense. Of course we can use deduction to derive one reliable result to others – but proof is only ever a stepping stone to more knowledge, and not a mechanism for acquiring knowledge.

We know science is the best source of knowledge because it works so well, because nothing else is as productive.

Another aspect of this science business that confuses the religious and sloppy philosophers alike is the extent to which science-like knowledge acquisition is the founded on the only way humans can come to any knowledge. Humans have brains made of neurons, and those neurons work pretty much as peripheral neutrons do. The upshot is that brain neurons are ‘experiential’ components, just as the peripheral neutrons are, and the result is that humans are experiential creatures at every level, and are evolved from experiential creatures without neurons. Humans are empirical creatures. It’s our only way of acquiring knowledge. 

The consequence is that science is no more than a bunch of methods that are based on our empirical nature, enhanced, improved, made more rigorous, in order to make our empirical knowledge acquisition more reliable.

Here’s why this question matters. If the first option is true, then logically, science absolutely is the supreme mode of knowledge, and everything we believe about anything must be in submission to it. The problem though is that whether or not all of reality is ultimately explainable through scientific concepts is not itself a scientifically provable theory. It is a philosophical premise, not a scientific conclusion.

Yes. But that’s not a problem. It’s the way the world is, the way human knowledge acquisition is. We cannot know anything absolutely, so we have to make do with the reliable contingent results of science.

The only way to definitively prove that science explains everything would be to have exhaustive knowledge of all reality, and then be able to explain (using only scientific data) what all reality is and what it means. Such a feat is impossible.

Yes. But I’ve explained why that is inevitable, but also why it doesn’t matter, and why it’s still the best we have, all we have.

Therefore, the belief that science is the best source of knowledge must be accepted on faith, for it cannot be verified through testing.

No! No! No! This does not follow from your other points. While it cannot be proved absolutely that science guarantees exhaustive knowledge, it can be verified through testing that it is the best source of knowledge, and based on these results and the scientific knowledge about our evolved biological nature, that its empirical methods constitute the only way of knowing. It’s easy in principle. Did we observe that the British Comet aircraft was really reliable? No. Empirical observation of planes falling out the skies demonstrated a problem, and more science demonstrated the nature of the problem – too late to save that plane. But that knowledge added to the safety of air travel, as have many other empirical observations and experiments, some of which took more deaths to cause improvements, some improvements coming from better science prior to deaths. That’s how messy science is because that’s how messy the world is for us humans, with our limited epistemological reach.

And just to head off where you are going with this, the contingency of science is not a loophole through which religion can sneak in. Not only is religion not some other way of knowing, it is nothing more than minimising the good methods of science and is in fact making a virtue out of an extremely poor use of our basic methods of knowing.

2) Scientific consensus can and frequently does change. This limits its epistemological authority.

I love the comic way theists make one of science’s graces into a limitation, while extolling religions discreditable obstinance as a virtue.

Look, since humans do not have perfect knowledge (something I think you agree with) we are limited to making the best we can, and then making improvements when we can. A great feature of science, and engineering generally, is that ‘good enough’ for the purpose in hand is good enough. And on top of that, what’s good enough now can be used to make future results even better.

The measurement precision of any instrument was limited by the craftsmanship of the artisan that made it. But then those instruments, that improve the natural inaccuracy of humans can not only make more accurate measurements easier, the instruments can also be used to make even more accurate instruments.

And in science generally, the more tests are repeated, and the test methods improved, and the more modes (branches if science) that are used the more confidence we have in our results.

This is all good stuff. It makes science good for progress. That some older ideas are improved upon or even replaced is progress. It’s a good thing!

And yet set against this we have religion that insists on sticking with ancient ideas come what may. In fact, much to the cost of many lives, having new ideas in religion can be dangerous and even fatal. Heresy is real thing in religion. You charge people with heresy as a negative act against the religion. The charge of heresy in science is a derogatory one in the opposite sense, in that the holding of ideas to be fundamentally unassailable such that a challenge is considered a heresy is a criticism of those entrenched ideas, not the new ideas or the heretic. Religion: heretic bad. Science: heretic good.

One does not wait on science to exhaustively explain something before believing it. If that were so then 99% of human beings on the planet would not believe in the most basic realities of existence, or would be irrational in believing without having exhaustive scientific knowledge.

Well, that’s right. But let’s see where you’re going with this …

If current scientific consensus points away from the existence of God (a highly disputable point, by the way), then who is to say that consensus cannot change? If it can, then science’s intellectual authority is limited, and the expectation that it will continue to oppose religious belief is more a matter of faith.

It’s only a highly disputable point in the minds of theists, who don’t appreciate how powerful science is, and how totally inadequate religion is. The point isn’t that science is limited to some extent, the point is that it is inordinately better than religion. If science was only 20% reliable that’s damned good when your alternative, religion, is 0%.

But, let’s get down to the detail. Yes, consensus could change to favour God – but only when there is evidence of God. This isn’t a a trivial beauty pageant where you get to pick the contestant in the nicest outfit, the one with the robes and funny hats. Just bring the evidence and science will take note. Unlike religion, where evidence is actually a bad thing and faith is de rigueur.

Just a final thought, on this possibility of evidence for God. Your point applies just as well to Islam as Christianity, to astrology, to fairies existing. This puerile play on the remote possibility of evidence turning up to favour your particular unevidenced belief is laughable.

This point (2) is seriously messed up in your head.

3) Only supernatural theism provides a rational justification of scientific work.

No! No! No!

Adding the word ‘rational’ isn’t helping. It’s not rational.

But you do need supernatural theism to have a rational justification of science.

Of course not. We have the empirical evidential justification that science is better than anything else. Remember, we not only can’t have absolute proof, but we also don’t need it. The results of science speak for themselves.

Why on earth would you want to dream up an imaginary supernatural explanation for something that already works? That it works without supernatural explanation is evidence itself that the supernatural isn’t needed.

You do realise this is just a God of the Gaps argument, don’t you? We don’t have absolute logical proof that science is infallible, so you are injecting this supernatural to fill that proof gap. But all you’ve done is filled the gap with a presupposition of a God – you’ve added an unexplained premise – and remember how deductive proofs never prove anything because they don’t have proven premises? You have just added an unproven premise: supernaturalism.

It means that scientific inquiry done on the assumption that there is no higher intelligence than evolved human intelligence is making a value judgment that it has no right to make.

There is no assumption that there is no higher intelligence than humans. We already accept that there might be alien species that are more intelligent than us now. There might be post-humans, trans-humans, in the future that are more intelligent than us now. There might be AI systems in the future more intelligent than us now. And yes, as some remote possibility there might be billions of super-natural gods more intelligent than us, and hyper-natural gods in a higher still realm of even greater intelligence than them – and not a drop of evidence for any of it. Whether it’s aliens, AI or gods, it’s all speculation.

We take modern humans to be the most intelligent creatures we know of because, from evidence, we are the most intelligent creatures we know of. it’s a working conclusion not an assumption. Don’t paint our contingent empirical knowledge with your presuppositional supernaturalist brush.

Why is knowledge better than ignorance? The atheist would respond that ignorance has less survival value than truth; after all, if you believe wrong things or do not know enough about your environment, you’re less likely to survive and flourish. But this explanation only applies to a very small amount of scientific knowledge. There is little survival value in knowing, for example, the complicated workings of time–space theory, or the genus of certain insects, or the distance of Jupiter from Mars.

In a trivial sense you are right. And for all the good prayer does there’s little survival benefit in pretending to know there’s a God. But that’s all irrelevant. Even if our intellectual curiosity is no more than an evolutionary by-product, we are stuck with it. We like finding stuff out. Whether it helps survival or not is irrelevant – as is sex after a certain age, or after a vasectomy or other contraception, but still enjoyable nonetheless. 

Human beings believe that knowing is better than ignorance because they believe that truth is better than falsity, and light is better than darkness. But where does such a conclusion come from? It does not come from scientific principles.

it comes from our evolved nature, whether useful or not. Another God of the Gaps argument is due I suppose.

You cannot study science hard enough to understand why you should study science at all.

Of course you can: psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, biology, …, science is in the business of explaining many things about the world, including why one species does what it does.

To study science presupposes a valuing of truth that must be experienced outside of scientific study.

No it does not. It doesn’t presuppose anything. We discover that we value truth by observing that we value truth. We then dig deeper into brain sciences to figure out why we value things. This isn’t news. Even if we don’t have as many answers as we like we have some, and are acquiring more. No more God of the Gaps, please.

It is only rational to pursue scientific knowledge that doesn’t offer immediate survival value if there is some external, transcendent value in knowing truth.

What utter rubbish! We can hypothesise that truth value comes from the basics of survival – the more accurate, closer to the truth about facts in the world, our knowledge is, the more likely we are to survive. That’s all that’s required. No need to hypothesise transcendental nonsense – which you hypothesise only because you already believe the God stuff.

4) Only supernatural theism gives us assurance that real scientific knowledge is possible.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga? No! For pity’s sake, he’s not a philosopher, he’s a theologian, with all the rep suppositions that a theologian has that stops him doing what philosophers should do, which is to be sceptical, to engage in critical thinking, to leave your presuppositions at the door. 

We already have plenty of contingent assurance that ‘real’ scientific knowledge is possible. And it it’s not real, if we are living some solipsistic imagined existence, so that all of material reality is only imagined in immaterial minds, then so what? But going down that path gets rid of your God too.

The “evolutionary argument against naturalism” is not complicated, it’s simple, and wrong.

Those two Plantinga facts:

– First, the theory of evolution is true, and humans have descended from lower life forms over time. 

– Second, humans are rational beings in a higher degree and superior way to lesser evolved creatures.

That isn’t that informative. You cannot derive from that what Plantinga thinks he can derive. There is no “tension between these two facts”.

If human beings are a more evolved species of primate, then our cognitive faculties (ie, the parts of our body and mind that allow us to be rational creatures) have evolved out of lesser cognitive faculties. But, Plantinga says, if God does not exist, then the only factors that affected human evolution are time and chance. Based on time and chance alone, why should we be confident that our rational minds–which are merely the sum of lesser evolved minds plus time and chance–are actually rational at all?

This betrays a really inadequate view of evolution, and biology, and physics, and reason.

It’s not just time and chance. More to the point the changes are not independent chance events. They are contingent events. A chance mutation acts in an environment that favours it to not. If it is favoured it’s more likely to persist in the gene pool, and it’s more likely to be favoured if it contributes to survival, or at least isn’t detrimental to it. It’s the selection, natural selection, that does the work of maintaining good chance changes and discarding bad ones.

And, reason is no more than the mechanistic working of a biological brain clicking away somewhat like a computer – and the somewhat it an important point here, since we re not exactly like computers in how we do computation. But reason is nothing more than messy computation using concepts and language to manipulate ideas.

What basis do we have to believe our own conclusions?

We don’t have any basis, in an absolute sense, no logical proof that our conclusions will be right. But we can recognise quite well when our conclusions turn out to work, and when they don’t. We know we make mistakes in this area. Look, Samuel, you and Plantinga have come to unreliable conclusions. Or if you are right then we on the atheist side have come to the wrong conclusions. Either way, we aren’t guaranteed to make the right conclusions, so that alone shows Plantinga’s thesis is wrong. We cannot know we are right perfectly, which is what you’d expect from an evolved organism that wasn’t designed by a perfect being for perfectly rational behaviour.

How do we know we are actually capable of knowing truth more than a primate? 

Taking you to mean any ‘other’ primate, well, we don’t, except in as far as we can show that we are more capable. In detecting the best location for food, the best place to sleep in the forest, then I guess we don’t know some things as well as they do, without artificial help. But on the whole we know we make better use of our brains intellectually by observing that we do – by looking at them and comparing empirically. This is all too easy. I seriously worry about the religious mind that can’t grasp this.

If the only players in our existence are lesser creatures, time, and chance, how do we know we are even highly evolved at all?

Jeez, these are seriously poor questions. We know we are highly evolved only in as much as our science tells us and no more. There might be species out in space more* evolved than we are. Had mammals not become dominant some other species might have evolved to be more* evolved. We know only, from our own observations, that on this planet we know of no more evolved species than us. It really is that empirically simple.

[* I’m playing your game here. Being *more* evolved is a dubious qualifier.] 

It makes no sense to assume that humans can really make sense of their world on a conceptual level if human consciousness arose out of the very world it responds to.

We are not assuming it. We are observing that it is the case. If we are wrong, and, say, we’re actually as dumb as horse shit, then we are doing a better job of fooling ourselves than we thought was possible when we started to laugh at the religious for the horse shit they believe in. C’est la vie. In the meantime, we still think believing in unevidenced gods is dumb.

Nagel agrees with Plantinga that atheistic naturalism cannot explain why human beings can be rational creatures and do rational things that should be trusted.

You do realise that if this is right, then we also have no reason to be confident in Plantinga’s reasoning, for believing in senses divinitatis? Right? You do realise that if naturalism is true, and this limitation you are perceiving is also true, then in a naturalistic non-supernatural universe this Plantinga horse shit is just the kind of horse shit that such limited humans might come up with? Right? The fact that we have this disagreement, between our rational empirical perspective and the theological imaginary friends, this is just what would happen under the naturalism Plantinga is worried about.

If there’s actually a God, and he has given us these brains, then we atheists are using them to show pretty well that there’s no evidence for God, and Plantinga has been put on earth by this God to make such a dumb argument that it actually increases belief in the stupidity of apologetics and the absence of God.

If Carl Sagan is correct and the material universe is all there was, is, and ever will be, then science itself is nothing more than a shot in the dark.

It is a shot in the dark. Enhanced by a science that started by shining Newton’s a light, and went on to invent night vision goggles, telescopes, microscopes, to help us on our way.

Religion is the art of being in a darkened space, insisting on remaining blind folded, and then imagining all the things that might be out there, without ever stepping into the unknown to actually test those ideas. It’s seriously stupid.


Sorry Samuel, but you are way off base. This is only going to encourage non-sciency Christians to keep churning out this sort of poor response to atheism and science all over the net.

Science is contingent, adaptive. That’s a good thing.

Religion is absolute, static, resistive to change. That’s a bad thing.

Heresy in religion is a bad thing, and in some cases punishable. Apostasy, blasphemy, heresy, are all tools to shut down thinking and encourage obedience. The best that can happen to the heretic is that he will be ignored, or scorned, or denounced as a sinner. But he could fact death or torture.

Heresy in science is a good thing, as long as it is backed up by evidence. The worse that happens is people laugh at your dumb ideas. See Deepak Chopra, Rupert Sheldrake.

Moral Opinions and Facts – A Religious Philosopher’s Presuppositions

This opinion piece (irony) by By Justin P. McBrayer, Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts, is full of McBrayer’s disappointment that the education system in the US isn’t instructing students in the existence of moral facts, mistaking them for moral opinions, in McBrayer’s opinion. McBrayer is wrong, they are opinions, in my opinion.

Justin McBrayer

McBrayer doesn’t give any evidence or proof of the moral facts he thinks there might be. He doesn’t even go so far to assert many moral facts directly, but merely laments that some particular moral facts that he believes in are taken to be opinions:

There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged?

Wow! I must come back to the hanging presuppositions in that question. How could a philosopher make such a comment? Here’s how: McBrayer is religious.

There’s a clue in bio summary at the bottom of the page

an associate professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He works in ethics and philosophy of religion.

And a quick search online:

Under his ‘Teaching’ is a section devoted to C. S. Lewis, the biggest dumb ass theist going with an unbelievable number of people that fall for his guff. I say dumb ass, in that sense I reserve for intellectuals that are really clever and capable in some respects but just fall head over heels for their own religious apologetics.

This is from his ‘Leadership’ page:

Good leadership requires courage, clear-thinking, and fairness. This is especially true in the academy where there are multiple stakeholders, each with their own priorities, and yet a commitment to shared governance. And it turns out that Plato was right: training in philosophy is training for good leadership! I strive to bring the skills I have honed as a philosopher to bear on the problems facing the communities that I lead.

That’s going to be difficult if one’s opinions are preloaded with religious presuppositions. Philosophy is a dangerous weapon in the hands of people that are inclined to believe their presuppositions to be rock solid premises from which they build fabulous valid but totally unsound arguments for things like, oh, I don’t know, Believing in God is Good for You.

So, you might think the remainder of this is a hatchet job on a theist by and atheist. It’s not meant to be. When I started reading it was the bad philosophy that popped out of the page, and it wasn’t until some way through that I thought, what’s the chance’s McBrayer is religious. Then I got to the mini-bio at the end and thought I’d take a look online.

Despite my concern for his religious foundations for his bad presuppositions the rest is really about the philosophy – since anyone can have bad presuppositions and believe them to be true.

Morals Are Opinions We really Care About

This is my view on morality as opinion, which explains in more detail why I object to McBrayer’s view: Moral Facts and Opinions

McBrayer’s Piece

As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshman in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.

I think those students are right, in principle, though this idea simplifies and avoids the extent to which some moral opinions are so entrenched in human minds that they are treated as facts. And as such they become facts: facts about what humans feel to be true, rather than facts about what is true in some external cosmic sense.

… some people might naturally assume that philosophers themselves are to blame. But they aren’t. There are historical examples of philosophers who endorse a kind of moral relativism, dating back at least to Protagoras who declared that “man is the measure of all things,” and several who deny that there are any moral facts whatsoever. But such creatures are rare.

Well, that’s one angle. The other angle is that too many philosophers, like McBrayer, are just as mistaken in thinking there are objective moral facts/truths other than strong opinions.

McBrayer then picks up on this:

  • Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
  • Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

He then goes on to explain the problem for morality, in that there’s this binary condition: one or the other. Something is a fact or it is an opinion. Facts are true for everyone, and opinions may vary for each person according to their view on the matter in hand. I do agree with one aspect of McBrayer’s view: some things can be facts and opinions, in that one can hold opinions about facts. But one can also have opinions that aren’t backed up by fact or aren’t really fact based at all. If we’re not careful we’ll get into the murky world of ‘truth aptness’ – a philosophical term that says little more than a statement can be expressing truth or falsehood. It doesn’t quite fit the empirical world but is better left to the world of pure reason.

McBrayer reviews some sources, including Wiki, and finds fault with the fact/truth distinction first. I don’t see McBrayer resolving the problem, so maybe this will help:

  • A fact is something accepted to be true, or near enough to being true, based on the weight of evidence, argument or both. A fact may be contingent and may change over time. The details of the fact may change, or it may simply be considered no longer true and so not an established fact. There may be arenas where a fact is held to be true and others where it is not. This might all seem rather messy – because it is. Get over it and stop expecting too much from facts.

  • True is a binary state, one of true/false, just as easily substituted by other symbols: yes/no, 0/1. Note that the actual state is arbitrary and all that is require is consistency in some system using the binary system (binary logic) – in the preceding I sort of equated true/false with 0/1, rather than the more common 1/0. In electronic systems +/- voltages might represent 0/1 respectively, or 1/0, and the interface circuits will take care of the conversion. Consistency in a larger logical framework is all that is required. It’s not much use, for example, showing that it is true that X, come Wednesday, having everyone expect X come Wednesday, and then when Wednesday comes you say, sorry, I meant Not X.

  • In relation to facts, as shown in the first example, with ‘accepted to be true, or near enough to being true‘, the true/false binary nature of ‘truth’ is often an oversimplification. Some situations are better described by other number systems – such as a percentage, for example. So, that X is true may really be a statement or claim that with all the data we have we think (with epistemological uncertainty) that the probability of X actually being wholly true is 78%. Or, perhaps, 68% of scientists think X is really true – though each of those would be wise to not commit to being 100% sure it is true. And so it goes. Truth, applied to our perceived reality, is rather a misplaced measure, and we often set too much by our poor estimates of it. Lighten up. Embrace uncertainty and contingency.

Then McBrayer moves on to a point I think he gets right:

But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions.

This is where I agree with him, but not on his deeper view. He gives an example where the following are all supposed to be opinions, in the opinion of some course paper, or the opinion of the author of the paper:

Copying homework assignments is wrong.

Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior.

All men are created equal.

It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism.

It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol.

Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat.

Drug dealers belong in prison.

The answer? In each case, the worksheets categorize these claims as opinions. The explanation on offer is that each of these claims is a value claim and value claims are not facts. This is repeated ad nauseum: any claim with good, right, wrong, etc. is not a fact.

Well, of course they are all opinions. They are moral opinions, mostly; opinions on a moral value – a binary moral value of right or wrong, inappropriate behaviour or not, drinking below 21 or not, and so on. Here’s the list again, with an explanation as to why they are opinions, and under what circumstances they are facts.

Copying homework assignments is wrong. – It is a fact based on accumulated opinion about the morality of copying. But it’s fairly simple to see that one could develop a culture where copying homework is good efficient use of your time. Most of us viewing this are of one culture that sees it as an established moral opinion already, and therefore there is this fact about that opinion – the fact about the morality of the matter is that we in our culture hold this moral opinion.

Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior. – I see no moral reason for holding this to be a fact at all. It is not a moral fact but the moral opinion of those people that hold it to be a moral fact. They are mistaken. The fact of the matter is they hold an opinion that they have elevated in their minds to be a moral fact, but there is no fact about this opinion outside that scope. I can show you the physics of the fact that the school has this rule, by showing you the school rules, and the minutes of the meeting in which it was laid down – these are records of the facts about material events that occurred. But there is no moral fact about inappropriate behaviour. It’s collective opinion that is mistaken for fact. It’s no good telling me that, well, this isn’t a physical fact it’s a moral fact, when you haven’t actually give me anything that is a moral fact beyond the fact of holding the opinion.

All men are created equal. – Opinion. When enacted into a Bill of Rights enforced by law a number of facts come about because of that enactment. It’s the enactment that’s a fact, in as much as it can be backed up. It is also a fact that this is an opinion held by many people. But it is not a fact. Without gross equivocation of the term ‘equal’ you would have trouble actually showing any two people are born equal, even twins, because we are all unique. Being born in a state that gives you the equal right to climb stairs isn’t equal if you are stuck in a wheelchair. Being born equal in any sensible literal use of the term makes it claim about physical facts of birth. Clearly that wasn’t intended. The intent is a political one. A political moral intent. A political intent to enact a moral opinion. But it’s still a moral opinion.

It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism. – Opinion based on some measure of utility. Good luck with getting everyone to agree on the details. It’s an opinion. While the ‘All men are created equal’ idea is an opinion that can be assigned into law in order to create some associated fact, this one is not likely to get everyone agreeing because left and right have different opinions on it. An anarchist might think no liberties are worth giving up ever. Yet more opinion. [Incidentally here, Utilitarianism is really a measure of utility used in support of moral opinion, or as a means to derive a moral opinion. The facts of a utilitarian argument are facts about the world and its utility to humans, not about some abstract moral opinion directly, and not some imaginary moral fact.]

It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol. – Opinion, written into law. And quite arbitrary. Like speed limits.

Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat. – A fact claim. But the epistemological measure of its truth is opinion based, backed up with some science perhaps. This isn’t even a moral value judgement. Of course people make a moral case for vegetarianism, but that ends up being opinion abut the importance to us of the welfare of animals. What if a vegetarian crash lands in a remote place with only meat on the plane. Do they eat or starve? They end up weighing their survival against a principle about an already dead animal. How would they go on if human dead meat was all there was – Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571.

Drug dealers belong in prison. – Opinion. Contested opinion at that. It can only be a fact when enacted in law. Then, when one comes across a drug dealer one can say, as a measure of the extent to which the law applies, that this drug dealer belongs in prison. Elevated to a moral statement this is entirely opinion.

So, all opinions. There are facts that lead to some people holding those opinions, and some fact that are consequent on people holding those opinions. But only the penultimate one is an actual fact claim without direct moral concern in the the actual statement – though moral statements could be added to it.

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

Well, that’s just about right, in one sense.

The is/ought barrier is baloney. Hume figured that out, but I can see how reading him makes it seem as though he endorses the barrier as a reality. But I read him as denouncing the foolish philosophers and theologians that see the boundary. I think he’s saying the boundary is illusory because there are no oughts that are distinct from ises – everything is ises. Of course I may have read Hume wrong, but then that only makes him wrong and he should have figured out that there are only ises.

So, what we have in the list above is all opinion, and only one that appears to be a non-moral factual claim about the world rather than claims about what people think are moral truths.

The inconsistency in this curriculum is obvious. For example, at the outset of the school year, my son brought home a list of student rights and responsibilities. Had he already read the lesson on fact vs. opinion, he might have noted that the supposed rights of other students were based on no more than opinions. According to the school’s curriculum, it certainly wasn’t true that his classmates deserved to be treated a particular way — that would make it a fact.

But such student rights and responsibilities are opinions, about how people should behave. They are used to create factual limitations: behave outside this prescribed range and you get expelled. The opinions have factual consequences when established as rules. And it is a fact that some brains hold these moral opinions, but they are still moral opinions and not facts.

Similarly, it wasn’t really true that he had any responsibilities — that would be to make a value claim a truth. It should not be a surprise that there is rampant cheating on college campuses: If we’ve taught our students for 12 years that there is no fact of the matter as to whether cheating is wrong, we can’t very well blame them for doing so later on.

This is baloney. If this fact/opinion issue is causing a problem at all it’s that the nature of the opinions and why we hold them isn’t explained well enough. I can see how post modern relativists are screwing up on education, but moral absolutists like McBrayer are only papering over the cracks of morality with their religiously backed opinions being asserted to be facts.

Indeed, in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts.

No! No! It’s this sort of absolutist nonsense that gets students with any brains thinking this religious stuff is a load of crap. They figure out that if you pretend these moral codes exist in the hands of some god, but, hey, he never actually strikes me down, then fuck it, I’ll cheat. A far more nuanced approach to morality as hard won opinions developed over millennia gives far more respect to their origins than some jumped up god shouting often contradictory and very often clearly pointless moral prescriptions and proscriptions. So what if I don’t go to church each Sunday? So what if my dad and I use profane language when watching football?

And here comes a chunk of clues about McBary’s thoughts on the matter of morality:

If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

Are you serious?

If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? – First, why the need to be outraged? I can easily make a moral argument as to why my moral opinion that it is wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees should be assented to. I don’t need to be outraged to make that moral argument.

In fact, it’s a whole lot better if I don’t let my outrage dictate my morality.

It was, was it not, the religious moral outrage of the Islamists that caused the murder? Seriously. Think.

If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? – We can do that based on arguments to support our moral opinions, based on the facts about human suffering. We don’t need fake moral truths, that are out there or god given. We can explain from a basis of human empathy about the suffering of others why people should not be inhumane. And we can add arguments about deterrence, or preventing the perpetrators from indulging in more crimes – isn’t that enough?

I suspect it’s not enough for the religious, who like to invoke their moral outrage in order to blame and punish. It seems to come with the territory. A bit of moral outrage and smiting and stuff, just like God – the God invented by humans, so that humans can justify their outrage rather than taking the more humanistic approach of struggling to control our outrage.

If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others? – Humans are not created equal. That is merely a statement of intent about how to treat people – as if they were created equal. Again, we can give arguments involving empathy and the benefit of giving each other mutually equal say in matters such that the conclusion is that a democratic political system is best, and that then allows us to vote based on our opinions, which may be selfish, or may be for the greater good – voting for a party that taxes more to help the poorer members, or for a party that is known to promote aid abroad, or one that is going to make a more humane justice system.

Many religious systems are inherently anti-democratic to varying degrees. Islam has a pseudo-democracy that favours Muslims. Even Britain, where there is one person one vote, the clergy get positions of power by virtue of being clergy, without any democratic vote on the matter. There is nothing particularly altruistic about systems based on religiously inspired ‘moral facts’. I don’t consider death for apostasy to be a morally good act, but I do consider apostasy to be a morally neutral act.

But at the same time, the curriculum sets our children up for doublethink. They are told that there are no moral facts in one breath even as the next tells them how they ought to behave.

And McBrayer is replacing the moral relativist double think with the religious absolutist think. Both are bollocks.

We can do better. Our children deserve a consistent intellectual foundation.

I agree. But not with Brayer’s solution. here are some points he makes:

Facts are things that are true. – No. facts are things that are deemed to be true, in some context of time, evidence and argument. We don’t have access to the absolute truth. The short cut that we are used to making in this context is that when even scientists say facts are true, and point to evolution, that still has this limitation, this contingency. But some facts are so much more evidenced that others (Evolution v ID) that as a good approximation we take Evolution to be a fact that is true. But never lose sight of the subtly.

Opinions are things we believe. – OK

Some of our beliefs are true. Others are not. – Well, some of our beliefs align with our measure of the facts. Some of our beliefs do not. There are zero facts about God, but plenty of people believe is some sort of God. The corollary of this and the previous example is that some of our opinions do not align with the facts as they are established. When you add to that other factors of bias and other interests it’s easy to see why the debate over climate change hangs on so much biased opinion and less on fact.

Some of our beliefs are backed by evidence. Others are not. – OK

Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not. – Well, that amounts now to opinions being value claims, and close to true or false, depending on evidence. That means that some opinions have no truth value, are either false, indeterminate or meaningless. So, “Cursing in school is inappropriate behaviour”, is entirely opinion, has not evidence to back it up, and has no determinate value, until you put it in a context whereby one defines it to be a moral truth – but then that definition is a matter of opinion of whether it is a good or bad definition, whether it should be held to or not. All opinion.

The hard work lies not in recognizing that at least some moral claims are true but in carefully thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct. That’s a hard thing to do. But we can’t sidestep the responsibilities that come with being human just because it’s hard.

I agree. But that isn’t about separating moral fact from opinion, which was the main thrust of Brayer’s piece. He fails on that main point in that he gives us no reason or evidence to accept that moral values are anything but opinions.

Moral Facts and Opinions

Yet another moral philosopher (another religious one) makes a hash of morality. So I wanted to get this down as a summary of my position on how morality is nothing more than opinion elevated to nobility; a common man made special by simply calling him a lord or a bishop.

Before We Get To Moral Facts and Opinions

The is/ought barrier is baloney. Hume figured that out, but I can see how reading him makes it seem as though he endorses the barrier as a reality. But I read him as denouncing the foolish philosophers and theologians that see the boundary. I think he’s saying the boundary is illusory because there are no oughts that are distinct from ises – everything is ises. Of course I may have read Hume wrong, but then that only makes him wrong and he should have figured out that there are only ises.

Let’s start out with a summary of what happened to get us where we are today. This is necessary to get the modern day picture. If you are religious you probably don’t buy this modern day picture, but instead seem content to hold beliefs from a dim and ignorant time. If you’re an old school philosopher you might not buy it either. I’d be interested to know why; but so far any religious and philosophical counters to this following explanation, about our reality and our understanding of morality, have been full of errors.

It’s rather cryptic – as you’ll note by the use of the short hand ‘stuff’. But I think the meaning is plain enough. And this exists in other posts, but I’m repeating here for the context that’s required to avoid any special kind of dualism, gods and excuses for ‘absolute’ or ‘objective’ morality.

  1. Humans as a species awoke to start thinking about stuff, about themselves and their world. This development is lost in history. The first we know about it now is the written history and the artefacts we have from the past, and the best early stuff we have starts with the Greeks. In a way, the lost distant history and the emergence of Greek philosophy is analogous to our individual personal awakening from infancy. We can’t remember much if anything at all about our early life before the ages of two and three, and then a scant few memories remain, some of which may be false memories we’ve adopted from later tales about our early life (we cannot tell), until, like the early Greek works, our parents show us crusty daubs of paint on crispy ageing paper. All we can tell now is that at some stage humans, as a species and as individuals, started to think about stuff.
  2. With little more to go on, humans played with their newly found minds, and invented gods to explain what couldn’t be explained. They also invented witches and all sorts of other creatures, material and non-material to explain away strange events – oh, and to blame people for bad stuff. I suppose this was a natural way to go. It seemed to be possible to invent stuff in the mind that had its own sort of existence, it’s own reality, and yet it couldn’t be touched by the physical world, by the senses. This was the creation of the primacy of thought as the key to understanding the whole of reality. Philosophy and religion were bedfellows, with our senses being able to tell us only some of reality, and not always reliably at that. A lot of the mental stuff wasn’t reliable either, but you couldn’t really test that – you sort of had to take it on faith. And we did.
  3. Not all thinkers fell for the supremacy of the mind. Empiricists of various kinds recognised the folly of some of the thought stuff. Conflicting beliefs seemed so easy to conjure up, and the only reality that smacked you in the face on a regular basis was the material world. It wasn’t as if many philosophers or theologians denied the existence of the material world and our sensory access to it. Their main difference was that they figured there was more; and even wanted there to be more, so much so that they really believed there was more, of other realms, gods, demons, angels. But, with so little understanding of the material world, and our part in it, the balance of power remained with the dualists, and the religious in particular.
  4. Eventually science got going. And then Darwin. And then the brain sciences, from psychology to neuroscience. And we started to get a better picture of what we were and are now. What were we? We started as simple empirical creatures, interacting with the world through physics and chemistry alone. And much of physics is chemistry and chemistry is physics at the molecular level, where the electromagnetic interaction of electrons around atoms with vast amounts of emptiness prevent atoms moving through each other. In small life forms, cells, the interaction is the physical boundary of the cell wall and the chemical transmission of information, food, energy – and information and food and energy are indistinguishable on these scales, they are just interactions of particle elements and molecules, and the exchange of energy.
  5. What are we now? Eventually multicellular creatures evolved variation in their cell types, to become organisms with multiple organs. And, for our purposes here, one distinct cell type is of interest: the neuron. A neuron is just another type of cell that specialises. It’s generally long, and transmits signals along its length – not by the conduction of electrons as in an electrical wire or electronic component, but as waves of ions crossing the boundary along the cell’s length, with each ion event triggering the next, like a Mexican Wave. The neuron can also grow extensions – synapses – to connect to other neurons, and other cell types in our peripheral nervous system. The connections are not direct cell-to-cell physical contact as much as gaps across which chemical signals can be transmitted. We are creatures with brains: a collection of interacting neurons.
  6. The remaining details of how neurons work is not important for now. What is important is this: there is little significant difference between peripheral neurons and brain neurons. The brain neurons are essentially ‘sensing’ and ‘activating’ each other just as the sense neurons connect to each other, to other tissues or to the neurons of the brain. Whatever other cell types and processes go on in brains, this seems to be the most significant feature: brain neurons are sensing and activating each other in such a complex way that the brain becomes aware of itself, even invents an abstract model of itself: me, my mind and I. We consider our peripheral neurons to be engaged in the empirical aspect of our epistemology while the brain neurons are engaged in the mental aspect, our reasoning. But since brain and peripheral neurons are all engaged in the same type of physical and chemical activity we are in fact totally empirical systems, and what we call the mind and its thinking and reasoning function is the outcome of a mass of empirical neurons working together. We were empirical beings all along! We are empirical beings!

Our mental lives are to a great extent full of illusions. The abstract self vanishes when looked at closely, or when the brain deteriorates. We know many of our optical illusions are not in fact tricks of the physics of optics but tricks that the brain plays on itself; or more graciously, the brain is fooled into to believing something is when it isn’t. There is zero evidence that an out of body experience is anything other than an illusion, and much evidence of it being an error – out of body illusions can be stimulated in the lab and the subject tested on the accuracy of what they think they are seeing from outside the body, and they are wrong. We invent gods, contradictory gods, and make awfully bad reasons for believing in them, and yet there is zero evidence of any god anywhere, ever, as far as we can tell.

In the sense laid out above it’s important to grasp that the categories we invent, the physical and the mental, the material and immaterial, even categories of the material such as the distinction between physics, chemistry, biology, are fairly arbitrary to the material matter that we are and that we interact with. When a bullet rips through my flesh we model it as a moving solid object deforming as it tears through flesh, but underlying this mayhem is the electromagnetic force that prevents the bullet passing straight through me with its atoms mostly missing my atoms in the vast spaces between tiny nuclei. When an asteroid impact hits the earth and results in atmospheric reactions that wipe out species, that’s chemistry and physics at work.

In this context we are material creatures in a material world, experiencing that world empirically through our epistemologically limited sense and brain neurons, co-opting our brain neurons to reasoning functions on the empirical data we collect.

This leaves us with some straight forward results. There is no evidence of anything other than the material world, the material universe. There is no evidence that we humans are anything but components of that material universe and not somehow distinct from it or transcendent beyond it. There is no evidence of a magical mind or soul that is distinct in kind from our material brain-body systems. There is no evidence of anything like a god from which we can derive something that might be a moral fact. There is nothing in the cosmos that reveals itself as something that might be a moral fact.

So, what are moral facts?

Moral Facts Are Opinions We Really Care About

There are no gods and no cosmologically available moral facts, that we have found.

Really. Show them.

Don’t just declare that your holy book tells you about God. That a holy book self-declares its own truth should be setting off big alarm bells in your epistemology. A liar writes a book that declares the liar is telling the truth? How would you distinguish a liar’s bible from a genuine bible? Evidence? Well, where’s this evidence? Will it lead me to Josephus, or will you use the reasoning of William Lane Craig, who will then lead me to Josephus and other nonsense? C. S. Lewis? Oh please. But by all means, let’s go down a few of those rabbit holes if you like.

Are you a non-theist moral facts person? Are your moral facts absolute, written in the cosmos? Where? What physical laws best model your moral facts?

If you’re still here, then this is what moral facts are …


We can take facts to be truths or near truths about the world, or something along those lines. That sounds a bit vague, and that’s because even the most solid facts we have are vague in detail if not in appearance. How do we establish facts? In one of two ways mainly, and often in some combination.

Inductive Evidence

Arguments from induction have a bad rep in philosophy, but that’s the fault of philosophy. Remember the primacy of thought, the supremacy of the mind that I mentioned earlier? That’s where this erroneous philosophical misjudgement comes from. The black swan argument has a lot to answer for.

I see only white swans. I confer with other people and they too see only white swans. We don’t presume we’ve seen all swans in the world, so we conclude, tentatively, perhaps confidently, but contingently, that all swans are white. We have induced, from several, maybe many, particulars to the general case that all swans are white. Fact: all swans are white.

But then someone tells us there are black swans in the southern hemisphere, and maybe brings back a pair to Europe! Oh no, our fact isn’t correct any more! What the hell happened?!

Induction worked, that’s what happened. We contingently concluded that all swans are white, based on the ones we’d seen. It was inductive: arguing from the particular evidence, contingently to the general case.

And now we adapt our argument and the result is a modified. Fact: all swans indigenous to Europe are white.

The basis of the inductive argument is simple:

  • Collect evidence
  • Form a contingent argument from the particular evidence collected to the general case
  • Declare the general case as a contingent fact
  • If conflicting evidence comes in, adapt the argument and the details of the fact – and if the new evidence makes the argument and the fact useless, abandon it

You will find that people like David Deutch will make a fuss about how bad induction is, that isn’t how science works; and many philosophers will tell you all about the ‘problem of induction’. They are talking bollocks, because there is no problem with induction unless you use it incorrectly – that is, if you expect it to prove anything beyond doubt. It doesn’t.

Induction is a contingent argument based on particular evidence in order to make some useful general statement about the world, and it’s adaptable, correctable. What could be more useful to human beings that are tiny creatures trying to understand the world the best we can with incomplete and fallible knowledge?

Deductive Reasoning

Here we come to the other side of the philosophical supremacy of mind screw up.

Deductive reasoning is based on logic. The binary stuff: 0/1, true/false, yes/no. Deductive arguments take a set of premises and using strict rules argue to some conclusion. That sounds pretty good. We can get from something we know and really reliably, absolutely, prove the conclusion, right? Wrong. That absolutely bit – that’s where it’s wrong.

A deductive argument is valid if the conclusion cannot be false if the premises are true. A sound argument produces a conclusion that is absolutely true if the argument is valid and the premises absolutely true.

That’s just fine, but there’s that absolutely again, but here it is more clear that the soundness of the argument depends on the absolute truth of the premises. In other words, the conclusion is contingent on the validity of the argument and the truth of the premises. This great deduction stuff is contingent after all. But our understanding of at least simple arguments is rock solid – if we can rely on logic at all.

The problem for deductive arguments sits squarely in the contingency of the premises. And so for any argument, we have to be able to prove its premises too, with another argument, and then that argument’s premises too, and on it goes back up the line of reasoning – all necessary for a sound argument and our ultimate conclusion we want to prove.

And so it all falls down. We cannot prove all premises in a chain of arguments. Somewhere along the line we rely on either a guess, some arbitrary decision, some assertions by definition, or an inductive argument from observation.

Some premises, in mathematics, for example, are called axioms. What are they? They are premises we take to be true, either because we have learned, inductively and deductively over a lot of work that they appear to be true, or because intuitively they seems to be true and we haven’t had good reason to reject them.

Intuition can sometimes be good. But what is intuition other than the physical brain having established some idea about what might be the case. We don’t know why a particular intuition exists – though in some cases psychology and neuroscience, and perhaps anthropology, can give us some ideas. But many intuitions are shown to be flat out wrong, so they are not arbiters of ready made truths. Will someone point this out to Alvin Plantinga – sensus divinitatis my arse – an intuition of having an intuition that becomes a presupposition that we have that intuition, that … LOL!.

What about scientific foundations? They are taken from observations about the world, and a few trial and error guesses, hypotheses, that someone then tests, and finds to be good enough.

Are there any absolute truths that we can use as premises? None that I know of. Really, none. There might be some we assume to be true because it really feels as though they should be true. But I bet in all cases it can easily be pointed out what guess or other arbitrary choice is being made, or how it’s based on some observations about the world.

In the end deduction is nothing more than a tool to get us from one set of contingent facts to another set in a reliable manner. The proof of deduction is localised to the argument and does not prove the premises; so its reach is limited.

And so always, we are empirical humans, observing the world, even empirically reasoning about it, since our brains are full of empirically operating neurons interacting to carry out reasoning processes. And all our knowledge so acquired is contingent.

Moral Facts

So, what about moral truths, are there no absolute moral truths? What about ‘it is wrong to kill‘, makes that an absolute moral truth, an objective moral fact? [Oh, no, objective, another of those weasel words we need to clear up. I’ll come back to that.] But, in the mean time, when it comes to the ways in which the term ‘objective moral fact/truth‘ is often used, no, there are none, they are all contingent, and when we look closer they are opinions.

Humans evolved to have the brains we have, to build the social structures we do, to have kids, and family. Our brains work using reason, now, but in many ways they are still very much like the brains of our animal relatives, subject to emotional stirrings, feelings that make us feel, that make us decide for no apparent rational reason – though we might rationalise our reasoning to fit our emotional decisions after the event.

When we get together and decide that killing each other is a bad idea we do that because we feel that. We feel it about ourselves, because we are survival machines – hey, who wants to be killed? We have evolved to have empathy for each other, and we have developed a theory of mind whereby we think that other people behaving like us think and feel like us and they don’t want to be killed either.

This isn’t necessarily something that we all figure out in some rational instant. It’s what grows on us personally, and what we have learned through our cultural past and which is passed on to us in turn through our moral systems.

That cultures have tended to invent gods as authority figures to authorise these rules seems obvious now. We are varied humans, and the killing and not killing business wasn’t a hard and fast evolved feeling, so some of us had more of the not killing while some had more of the killing. It makes things a lot easier if you invent a god that tells us we should not kill. It’s also handy if that god tells us under what convenient circumstances it’s good to kill; and that makes for a very handy self-sustaining system of bullshit if that god is supposed to authorise the killing of people that don’t believe in that god and his non-killing rules.

It’s fairly easy to see how many conflicting religions can invent the characters of their own gods for the sustenance of those religions and the cultures that they bind together. It’s fairly easy to see that within the context of some general feelings about killing, different cultures can come to enhance their morality giving god stories to suit their own particular circumstances, and acquire some seriously dumb arbitrary moral rules along the way.

It’s fairly easy to see that without evidence for these gods that the moral facts attributed to them are nothing of the sort.

All human moral facts are based on opinions humans have about how other humans should behave, and if maintaining such benefits to us necessitates agreeing that we must be mutually subject to these rules, then that’s fine. We all get along by sharing some moral opinions.

But I like strawberry and you like chocolate, so who is right? If moral opinions are just like that, aren’t they easily argued against? Doesn’t it mean someone can just say, “Sorry, in my opinion killing is good, so I’m going to kill you.”

Yes it does.

That’s precisely the problem with morality. It is all about opinions just like that. But the thing is, many if not most of us are survival machines, and we like an easy life, so most of us are prepared to submit to the general opinion that killing is bad.

In my opinion, formed from my personal emotional feelings about my survival, the survival of my children and parents, the survival of my friends, my protective society, killing is always bad news, if not for me then for someone in my society, and I can empathise with that. That’s why killing is bad. It’s a feeling, an emotion, a reasoned argument as to why we all should not kill – an opinion based on all that, such that in my opinion killing is wrong.

I have invented an ought as an emotionally charged is.

What about eating pork? Nope. That does nothing for me. But my Jewish and Islamic friends feel otherwise. Some might pass it off as a cultural requirement rather than a moral proscription, and that is exactly what it is; but for many it’s an opinion elevated into a moral fact, for them.

So, here we have two moral facts that have been elevated from mere opinion: not killing and not eating pork. One is more widespread in its acceptance than the other. The latter seems more obviously a relative moral fact, more like an opinion. To may Jews and Muslims the avoidance of pork is more than an opinion, it is a moral fact.

Moral relativism! But this is descriptive moral relativism rather than prescriptive moral relativism.

I can observe and describe a relative matter of moral fact: some people think eating pork is good, some think it is wrong. But, I do not subscribe to an absolute unbridled prescriptive moral relativism. I would suggest and argue that Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is morally wrong. That is an opinion of mine based on my observations of reports of how harmful it is, and given my low opinion of the moral merits claimed of it, I feel I can argue that my moral opinion is a worthy one.

A moral fact is only an opinion given some extra emotional status, sometimes backed up by arguments from evidence, sometimes backed up by the belief in some imagined god that sanctions the moral fact. But in the latter case the claim that there is a god is itself based an opinion, so there we have an opinion that there’s a god and an opinion that this god dictates some moral facts – but that’s opinion nonetheless.

That most humans feel very strongly about the ‘not killing’ moral opinion, such that they hold to it and elevate it into a moral fact, does not stop it being an opinion. It is an opinion common to most if not all humans.

Suppose there is some alien race of beings that do not have our empathy and other brain tools helping us survive as a group, but rather use some other facts and reasons upon which they build their societies. What if an alien race exists whereby the females always bite off the heads of the males after mating, or where the female lets her offspring eat her, or where reproduction is non-sexual and killing is an enjoyable sport? Where does our ‘not killing’ prescription fit into the bigger picture?

As such, our moral codes are arbitrary in the cosmos, but particular to us, as far as we know. Note that this is an inductive argument: it is wrong to kill because all the creatures that can think about this stuff that we have come across so far tend not to like killing. It is contingent upon having a majority of humans that feel this way. It is contingent upon us putting in place systems that counter our occasional frustration or anger that incites our wrath that in turn incites us to kill our friends.

Objective/Subjective Moral Truths/Facts

The religious or cosmologically determined objective moral truths are nothing of the sort. They are the subjective human opinions about the sources of morals.

Some humans feel so strongly about these sources of morality that they treat these opinions about sources and opinions about morals as if they were objective moral truths, as if the facts about these moral ideas can be found, somewhere out there, in or from God, or in the cosmos – but they never are found there, they are only ever imagined to be found there.

But, it is a contingent observable fact, an objective fact, that humans have on the whole come to treat the requirement not to kill as a moral fact.

Humans have invented and hold to a subjective (personally, and culturally) moral opinion, that we should not kill, and hold it so strongly that it has become a somewhat sketchy but generally acceptable objective fact about humans.

But note the important distinction here:

  • That killing is wrong is a strong opinion held by humans.
  • It is an objectively observable fact that many if not most humans have that opinion.
  • It is an objectively observable fact that many humans feel so strongly it, and are so unable to see the source of our moral opinions, that they take killing to be wrong as an objective fact about the cosmos or about what gods think.
  • It is not an objective fact that killing is wrong in any sense other than the sense that it’s a strongly held opinion.
  • It is an objectively observable fact that many humans will find convenient exceptions to this general rule that they hold to, that killing is wrong.

We, as humans have opinions about morality and concoct subjective facts. The above are the observable objective facts about the subjective facts of morality that we concoct. They include some explanation for why humans think there are moral truths independent of that, and some explanation about the ways in which we are mistaken.

This subjective/objective business seems to confuse some, but it’s fairly straight forward once you get it, so it’s worth restating it:

  • There are objective discoverable facts about humans.
  • One such (simplified) objective fact is that humans concoct subjective opinions they sometimes feel are objective facts about the world.
  • There is no discoverable (or discovered as yet) cosmological objective fact that it is wrong to kill.
  • There is a human-relative subjective opinion that killing is wrong, and this is (likely) to be the result of evolutionary and social objective facts about human development that we have been discovering.

Moral Consequences

The consequences of all this can be disconcerting to theologians and philosophers alike, and to many people that don’t think about this stuff much.

Is morality that arbitrary?

It seems that arbitrary, on the scale of the cosmos. The stars do not appear to cry out when humans kill each other in large numbers. In fact no other animals seem to care either. We are the only ones that appear to care, if we do at all. Of course, there could be some small scale operation of the universe, on the scale of physics and chemistry, such that when biological brains evolve in groups of sexually reproductive animals like us there is a tendency to prefer not killing over killing, based on the evolution of survival and empathy and theory of mind. But we really don’t know that this is how brainy species must evolve.

But, of course, it’s not that arbitrary, for us. It is the case that humans do want to survive, they do have empathy, have a theory of mind, and this and other stuff all comes together to make us create cultures (many times, independently) where ‘not killing’, at least within the culture, is valued and elevated to a moral code. But that’s about as objective as it gets.

Does that mean there is really nothing stopping you killing when you want to?

No, not really, not in some cosmic sense. Go ahead.

But, we have known for a long time that some people are prepared to kill and have no problem doing so. We have called them all evil in the past, but now we know of some categories of human brain that do not have the inhibitions most of us have. Some people have brains that have no problem killing, and it’s perhaps to the credit of our moral systems that they don’t kill more often. We have built police services, armies, laws, courts of law, prisons and lots of other mechanisms to persuade those of us not convinced by the not killing code to actually not kill. But it takes a particular type of mind, or a mind under some particular conditions, to actually kill; and so mostly we don’t kill. Except for a number of very densely populated cities and some areas of conflict, like war zones, killing is quite rare. There are about 3 million people living in my Greater Manchester home, and not so many people are murdered – it’s news when they are. Even in cities with a high murder rate, it’s still a tiny fraction of the city population that do the murdering, and very few murder more than a small number of times. War zones are exceptions and news. And yet, when it comes to hand to hand combat the killing is small scale, and so only weapons of medium or mass destruction kill many people at once. The Nazis were a modern exception.

And it seems some otherwise very good people can be persuaded to kill quite easily. Look at some of the smart young kids persuaded to join ISIS and kill for their religion.

Religions have both helped prevent killing but have also been a significant excuse for killing. And still are. They have outlived their overall utility. We need to improve education with philosophy and morality and science, to explain who we are and why we don’t want to kill. The naturalistic reasons presented above are enough. Develop those into humanist principles and we don’t need religion.

The non-religious answers aren’t absolute, and are not guaranteed to stop all the killing. But religion doesn’t stop it anyway, clearly. It seems like there’s a good chance that a better education, a reduction in religious indoctrination to remove the temptation to allow religion to increase divisiveness and encourage killing, could move us to a generally better world.

But we have to understand what morality is, and why we want it. We have to get rid of this religious scaremongering that tells us we’re off to hell in a hand cart were it not for religion. It’s bollocks. We can have moral opinions and reason about them to improve them. And we can elevate them to moral codes of conduct that are backed up by law.

We don’t need to reify morality into some cosmic or god given truth or fact. The objectivity of our morality lies within the personal subjective experience of our common human nature. We may have only contingent facts and truths that we must adapt in the light of evidence – but that’s all we have. We are moral humanists.